Melbourne-founded digital teaching assistant Sindy Labs accepted into Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator

Melbourne-founded digital teaching assistant Sindy Labs accepted into Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator co-founders Oliver Cucanic (left) and Ben Arya (right).

After Australian venture capital (VC) firms showed little interest in a digital teaching assistant that is now undergoing trials at the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Science, at the start of 2024 the founders of Sindy Labs took the grants won at several pitching competitions to try their luck in the USA.

It was a fateful decision that recently led to their acceptance into the prestigious UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator that has aided the likes of e-bike empire Lime and ed-tech unicorn Empowering, starting with a US$200,000 ($300,167) safe note and a relocation to San Francisco that is underway.

"We went to America in January this year, and that’s where our perception of everything changed because we realised how much more capital is out there, and how much keener people were in the American market for taking risks," says co-founder Oliver Cucanic.

"We were only there for two weeks, and it’s crazy what can happen in two weeks – we met with investors, founders, change makers, all different types of people," he says.

A few contacts believed Sindy Labs would have a good shot at SkyDeck, so co-founder Ben Arya and a couple of interns put an application together. This got them over the line for an interview, where Cucanic explains they had to justify their existence.

"We had to describe how much we were willing to sacrifice for this company, and everybody had a different perspective," he says.

"They essentially said that the money being received would be contingent on a reshaping of the cap table - who owns what and who is involved in the company, which was probably the hardest thing that Ben and I have had to deal with because of the emotions we're trying to navigate."

These emotions relate to a requirement that one of the initial co-founders, who had been instrumental in setting some of the architectural principles of the software, change their involvement and reduce their stake. That founder's position of chief technology officer (CTO) has since been taken up by fellow Sindy Labs co-founder Taha Ansari.

"I think we all learned a lot from it, and it was probably the right decision in the long term," says Arya, who is already based in California and dropped out of med school to be there. Cucanic meanwhile is putting the finishing touches on his PhD on preventing cancer metastasis. 

"Now we have a pretty solid team - very young, very ambitious, very hungry, and everyone is moving from Melbourne to San Francisco," adds Arya.

"The whole company is flipping up to a C corp. We’ve just secured an office space in San Francisco that we're moving into. People are leaving Deloitte and dropping out of their compsci (computer science) degrees for this."

But what exactly is "this"? Why has a pre-revenue startup like Sindy Labs, developed as the side hustle of uni students, caught the eye of an accelerator that only has a 1 per cent acceptance rate?

Flipping the mentality on AI detection at universities

It starts with the problem the founders set out to solve, and their solution's potential to assist students and educators alike in a sector that is grappling with how to handle the threats posed by AI to grading, skills and qualifications.

"We were looking at AI content detectors and noticed that they had really high false positive rates," says Arya.

"They punished severely people who spoke English as a second language, because they just identified all of their inputs as AI generated, and they were being used to actually essentially intimidate students and sometimes remove marks from them, even if they had written the assignments themselves.

"What we basically decided on was that the whole approach of AI content detection wasn't going to work. You can’t predict the probability of AI generated text through burstiness and perplexity scores."

The answer was to talk to the student, leveraging large language models (LLMs) to create a conversational assessment tool that could "engage students in automated conversations based on the content of their assignment submissions".

"You submit your assignment, and rather than getting an AI detection score you actually get quizzed and interrogated by Sindy, our chatbot, about the content of your assignment as a way of verifying your authorship.

"We ended up talking to a bunch of educators. We realised it was a problem, but then when we talked to VCs we realised it wasn't a big enough problem to justify a really large market size which would be able to allow us to get an investment.

"So we expanded our scope, and we noticed that the technology that we developed, could also be used to just check in with students to see how they were learning. Rather than testing them about their assignment content, we could use it to verify their understanding and track their learning over time."

Sindy Labs co-founders Ben Arya (left) and Taha Ansari (right).
Sindy Labs co-founders Ben Arya (left) and Taha Ansari (right).


Trials to ramp up 

With the data collected in the process, subject to privacy compliance and permissions from the student about what kind of data is captured, hyper-personalised feedback can be given to a student on their progression "so they would never be second-guessing if they had learned this topic well or where to dedicate more time".

"This was the next unlock. Educators really loved it, universities started hitting us up - we're running a pilot at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Science which is currently underway," he says.

"There is a Berkeley Haas (business school) one starting in September, and I'd say the main exciting area for us is we’ve been able to iron out most of the bugs in the platform using this initial pilot.

"So we're ready for the 100 educators that have reached out to us through teaching and learning summits who want to pilot Sindy in their university subjects. This is going to go from around 150 students now to probably tens of thousands within the next few months."

Discussions are also in the advanced stages with a tertiary institution in New Zealand, while discussions are ongoing with 20 universities in Australia alone.

Sindy is currently a text-based chatbot, but the founders have their sights set on making it fully audiovisual, which they believe will be possible amidst rapid technological improvement in the space. They also plan to expand into the vertical of micro-credentials for students.

"We want to partner with large companies like Apple, Tesla, Facebook, and essentially provide them with a way of screening the quality of graduate students from all of these amazing universities," says Arya.

"Admissions are no longer relying on the SAT (standardised test for US college admissions). The actual grades are being inflated and everyone’s getting a 4.0 GPA, and so they're actually having to use tools to verify how good someone actually is.

"We want to shift the time when that happens to throughout the entire university degree – can you microcredential them? Can you give employers a learner profile that illustrates how well they’ve learned and all the skills that they've obtained throughout their degree?"

The community that spawned Sindy 

The Sindy Labs story, having changed its name from previously and Sincidium before that, is also one underpinned by the relevance of startup communities and hackathons for bringing entrepreneurs and prospective founders together.

Cucanic says he and Arya first met at a Melbourne Uni pitch competition, joking that they "unspokenly hated each other at the time" as "compelling competitors".

"Neither of us won that cohort, but I reached out to Ben afterwards before we got the results, and said to him ‘I like the way you pitch - regardless of what happens, we should probably work together in the future'," the co-founder says.

"Push forward throughout that next 12-month period before the next year's cohort of the pitch competition, and Ben and I had iterated through many different ideas through different accelerator and startup competition.

"We tossed around a couple of ideas in medtech and biotech. One was an at-home cancer diagnostic service which fell through because we would have needed $1 billion to execute it."

Then ChatGPT came out at the end of 2022, and the pair came up with the idea that was "very integrity based, talking students through conversations of their assignment submissions and using their familiarity as a proxy for integrity purposes and misconduct".

"We went back for vengeance, we won the competition – that gave us our first round of funding," says Cucanic.

"We built really good contacts with other people who were running other competitions and hackathons, which we participated in and we basically just went through a winning streak.

"It was going from pitch competition to pitch competition, winning, winning, winning, got a couple of grants along the way; I think we accumulated within the first eight months or so probably around $50,000.

"Keep in mind Ben and I were still actively fully engaged in PhD and med school. We were doing this all on the side. A side hustle becoming your main hustle is almost every uni student's dream when they run their startup, and that's come to fruition for us now."

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