qutbluebox Innovation Challenge Finalists: Machinam – Q&A

Machinam - logo

1. What is Machinam?

Remember back in high school you would arrive at maths class and just be like, “Woooo, I can’t wait to get stuck into these non-linear equations today?” Nope, neither can Machinam.

As engineers, the team from Machinam (pronounced Ma-ki-nam) use maths every day in their lives to solve relevant, real-world problems but back in high school, they couldn’t see the point of what they were learning.

That’s why Machinam, a for-profit, for-purpose company that has developed an app-based resource for high school maths classes, was created.

This product tackles the age-old question “Why do we need to learn this?” by framing maths problems in a way that allows students to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives and potential future careers.

This digital app brings together problem-based learning, real-life context and digital technology to provide an alternative to traditional high school maths textbooks. It is both engaging and relevant to students’ interests, and is mapped to the Australian Curriculum.

2. Who are the people behind Machinam?

Claire Bennett, Felicity Furey and Jillian Kenny have been passionate advocates about the possibilities that arise from diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and creating change in this space for the past six years.

After volunteering their time in existing not-for-profit organisations as well as founding their own successful not-for-profit companies, these women are now using a commercial structure to create lasting and sustainable change. Their passion and their professional experience delivering large projects and leading teams have enabled them to bring their ideas for Machinam to a reality.

  • Jillian Kenny (Director), PhD, Civil Engineer, Co-founder Power of Engineering, 2014 Top 100 Most Influential Women in Australia.
  • Felicity Furey (Director), Senior project manager, Civil Engineer, Co-founder Power of Engineering, 2012 Top 100 Most Influential Women in Australia.
  • Claire Bennett (Director), Senior engineer, high risk project manager, mother.

3. What is your connection(s) to QUT?

Jillian and Felicity both studied civil engineering at QUT, but funnily enough didn’t meet until a few years after they had both graduated.

Jillian graduated from a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) in 2010 and completed a PhD in innovation, which is currently under examination. Fingers crossed she will graduate in December 2015!

Felicity graduated from a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) in 2007 and was a finalist in the QUT Science and Engineering Faculty Outstanding Alumni Awards in 2013.

Power of Engineering, the not-for-profit organisation Felicity and Jillian founded, held its first event for Year 9 and 10 high school girls at QUT in 2012. QUT is now a Foundation Partner and continues to support and promote the organisation having reached over 1,000 students from the events they have run together.

4. How long have you been operating as a business?

Machinam has been operating as a business since December 2013. At the time they were all living in Brisbane, but Felicity and Jillian have since relocated to Sydney and Melbourne respectively. You might think operating a team of three people across three different states might be a logistical nightmare but they’ve realised that it works rather well.

They’ve also implemented some great tools like Slack, Trello and Google Hangouts to keep communication active no matter where in the country (or world) they happen to be.

5. How did you come up with the idea for Machinam?

In 2012, Felicity and Jillian co-founded Power of Engineering (POE), a not-for-profit organisation to inspire female Year 9 and 10 students about what’s possible from an engineering career. Claire joined the team as Partnerships Coordinator shortly afterwards.

After a few years, they began to question if there was a way to scale the impact they were making. During that time, the teachers and students Felicity and Jillian met during POE workshops asked whether such a resource, that engaged the students in the classroom, was available. After spending many hours talking and scheming in a quaint café at the Barracks in Brisbane, Machinam was born.

Based on that first conversation in the café, Felicity, Jillian and Claire wanted this venture to focus on changing the social fabric of engineering, technology and design. The word ‘fabric’ stuck out as a potential name (which was, of course, taken), but they discovered the Latin translation of the word to be Machinam. It is also the derivative of words like fabrication and machine, which is a nice homage to their engineering background. Apparently, to machinate is to artfully plot or scheme, which the team quite like as well!

6. Do you have any previous experiences in start-ups or business?

Machinam’s business experience comes from running POE workshops during the last four years. Although POE is a non-profit model, it has proven to be an excellent training ground for running a business. They have learned many valuable aspects about recruiting, managing teams, project management, financial reporting, business planning and governance. As senior project managers for some of the world’s leading consulting firms, Claire and Felicity have managed multi-million dollar projects for large and small businesses.

7. What has been your biggest challenge with Machinam to date?

The biggest hurdle in getting this idea off the ground was actually their own self-belief and confidence in their idea. In the beginning, Felicity, Claire and Jillian didn’t know anything about ‘validating an idea’ and spent almost six months talking about it and not taking any action because they thought that being engineers, maybe they were just being nerdy and this wasn’t something people actually wanted. Finally, they gathered up the courage to share their idea with people out there in the world including parents, teachers and students and discovered that there was a demand for what they were doing.

8. What has been your biggest success with Machinam so far?

Validating ideas through school trials. Machinam have confirmed their approach, the market size and demand and received positive feedback from students. There were some extremely articulate year nines who were thanking Felicity, Jillian and Claire profusely for helping them rekindle their natural curiosity and thirst for learning in maths. They found it rewarding to see they were making a difference in students’ lives already, and can’t wait to scale this project and help more students and teachers.

9. Where do you find inspiration and what entrepreneurs are you influenced by?

For inspiration, Jillian, Felicity and Claire all love Brene Brown. If you don’t know who that is, she is a researcher who studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame and conducted one of the top five most-watched TED Talks of all time. Click here to view the video.

Brene was the first to label their business approach as ‘grounded theory entrepreneurship’ – an approach where the product emerges to fulfil an existing need. The idea is that you trust what emerges from the data, and what people’s lived experiences are. By doing this, you can identify the main concern of a group of people you want to help (your market). Your business evolves around how you are continually trying to resolve that concern. A business is only as good as its ability to address the changing needs of its market and this approach means you can be confident that your target market wants your product, seeks it out and doesn’t require marketing or promotion.

Machinam are also influenced by big-thinking entrepreneurs like Tim Ferriss (love his podcasts), Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis who ask questions like, “How can you impact a billion people not just focusing on a target market of 10,000.” They also love to bounce ideas and share advice with the network of Young Social Pioneers, an amazing group of thinkers, dreamers and doers who solve social issues through entrepreneurship.

10. What would it mean to you and your start-up to win the Innovation Challenge?

Claire, Felicity and Jillian have some huge ideas for Machinam. Winning the Innovation Challenge would allow them to develop the basic app and place the product on the market and into schools across Australia.

As one of the teachers who trialled the content in class said, “If successful, this resource has the potential to transform the way a whole generation relates to maths. They’ll understand how and why it’s such an important skill for life.”