The Mullion Group is a software and consulting company supporting companies, countries and other organisations to operationalise systems for estimating environmental metrics. This small Canberra company employing around 14 staff is recognised internationally for their expertise in greenhouse gas inventory systems for the land sector.
Identifying a niche
When it comes to monitoring and forecasting the impacts of land management activities on production, greenhouse gas emissions, food security and sustainable development, Mullion has identified a big gap.
“There were lots of technologies being developed, in particular lots of remote sensing, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies; but no one was actually working with groups to help them identify the questions they were actually trying to answer and what sort of innovative systems they needed to address these questions,” says CEO Dr Rob Waterworth.
“We discovered very early on a complete lack of software for integrating data of different types. For example: How do you get this remote sensing data? How do you combine it with models? How do you combine it with ground data? How do you produce outputs that are useful and turn it into some sort of system that companies can rely on? So, we started building an open source software solution. We started this in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation, and the Australian and Canadian Governments, but there are now dozens of contributors to the system”.
Making it scalable
Originally, the Mullion Group focused on writing the software and then helping Government and organisations to implement it.
“About 3 years ago one of our board members, Jim Baker, who was formally the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US, was talking to someone who was very interested in environmental reporting for companies. He was looking at making investments and he had seen the same thing we had, namely that there was lots of remote sensing, lots of AI, lots of pretty maps, but no operational systems.
“Jim put us in contact. The feedback that we got was that what we were doing was really unique, but our business model was not scalable. He was completely correct. He proposed taking some equity in Mullion and for us to use those funds to turn our software into a full online enterprise level system. This meant that rather than only ever being able to access 5 or 6 clients at a time we can now access thousands”.
The right product at the right time
Mullion released the full operational version of the system about 12 months ago and have continuously improved it as they added clients.
“Think of the way financial accounting software has moved on since the 80s,” says Rob.
“Everyone was building their own bespoke spreadsheets, databases and systems and it was horribly difficult to maintain. Then MYOB, SAP etc. turns up and you get this consistent framework, and then in the last 5 or 10 years you get the sudden jump to Xero, and now being able to access data and create reports anywhere, anytime is just accepted as standard”.
Rob points out that accountants have not gone out of business because of these systems. However, now you have all these consistent enterprise level systems where business owners can log in and easily find the information they need to make decisions.
“That’s where we are trying to take this because the current world of environmental metrics is still sitting in the 80s”.
The environment has also changed.
“Previously people would say to us that it’s a lovely system and far more powerful than what they do, but quite frankly they just needed a table they could stick in the back of an annual report”.
Rob says that they are already seeing a shift where people are needing to measure their performance, do scenario planning, projections and ‘what ifs’. Now a basic spreadsheet doesn’t work anymore.
“We definitely got in very early in this space but the environment has changed completely in the last 12 months and you are even starting to see a few of the traditional venture firms starting to show a big interest as well as the Microsofts, the Googles, and others opening up huge climate funds for climate solutions”.
The right customers at the right time
The Mullion Group now offers everything from full subscriptions to automated reporting services. While their original clients were mostly government, they found this to be a really hard sales cycle. They have now shifted to include large corporations who need better environmental reporting or who are looking at moving into environmental credit markets like carbon units and carbon trading.
According to Rob, these customers need a system to reliably estimate all their greenhouse gas emissions from anywhere in the world.
Rob says one of the company’s medium to long term goals is to focus on growth in the financial and real assets sector.
“Suddenly here is this pressure being applied, not from environmental groups, but actually from the people with the money who are not going to put money into funds if they don’t see a plan.
“In Europe, many investors are stressing that you can no longer just write that you care about climate change and will do something about emissions; you now have to provide your emissions profile and detail what’s happened and how you plan to reduce your emissions profile over time”.
Rob believes this is a huge shift that is going to be far more powerful than from Governments, green groups or NGOs.
“I think the green groups and NGOs have done such an incredible job of empowering and making everyone realise it is so important; it’s now flowing through and that’s impressive”.
The impact of COVID-19
There are a few things with the COVID-19 pandemic that Rob says is very interesting.
He believes that in some respects as an Australian exporter the restrictions around the pandemic have levelled the playing field for them a little.
“One of the big challenges we’ve always had and why we’ve recruited someone in North America, is face-to-face meetings. You can’t just have coffee, knock on doors or go and talk to people in the US and that puts you at significant disadvantage to your competitors who are able to close deals much more quickly. Now, because most of them can’t do that face-to-face interaction, it’s evened up the playing field a bit. Zoom is becoming the platform for everyone not just the Australian companies”.
Rob says that another impact of COVID is that customers are realising they need a remote solution. There is growing recognition that the impact of the pandemic is not going to be a short-term problem.
“People are recognising that you need these remote solutions because it’s going to be very hard to get people into countries and boots on the ground to do in-field monitoring”.
He believes that this is a big shift in thinking and is opening a whole world of opportunity.
The right people at the right time
Rob acknowledge that the team is largely made up of scientists, policy experts, and software developers so their sales and marketing skills were limited.
“It’s been very interesting bringing on our business development manager in the US. Watching how he operates and how we have operated; it is very different. We have been effective through strength of product not through strength of sales techniques. I think as we combine these two skills we are going to do quite well.”
Early in the COVID pandemic a number of their clients were starting to wind back on contract values.
“Fortunately, that slowed down and we picked up a few extra bits of work. However, it meant we had to put a bit more hustle in for a few months and really chase a few things that were there in the pipeline. The impact of COVID has largely been to push us back into a sales/marketing cycle”.
“The big difference we are seeing between this economic downturn and previous ones is that environmental reporting and practices have not been first on the chopping block. In fact, many companies have protected these areas as they realise that the future post COVID is going to look very different.”
The short-term goal for the Mullion Group is to grow their pipeline by focusing on the smaller jobs.
“We’ve set the systems up now so that we can do a lot of automated reporting for groups at quite a low cost, far lower than what a consultant could ever charge, at least 5 times cheaper.
“They get the report and think – that’s really handy, we’d like another one. Then eventually that builds up until they decide they want the system.”
When it comes to innovation, Rob says they it is an organic build of the system going forward.
“There’s a whole lot of questions we’re starting to get asked about more advanced models around agriculture in particular and that is a huge issue in the US”. As FLINTpro is a highly flexible system we can easily adapt to users’ needs and use their own data in innovate new way, something our competitors with more rigid structures tend to struggle with.”
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