UTS alumni start-up making parenting easier in the digital age

01 April 2015

UTS alumni start-up making parenting easier in the digital ageAs teenagers, Adam Mills and Steve Pack knew they wanted to start a company together: they just needed their big idea. Fast-forward more than 20 years and these two UTS alumni are realising their dream – and making life a little easier for parents in the process.

Steve struck upon the inspiration for their start-up tech company KoalaSafe two years ago, when his nephew was given his first iPad for Christmas. The once very active boy soon tossed aside outdoor adventure in favour of the compelling electronic treats on offer, and his mother faced a constant battle to limit screen time and monitor his exposure to unsuitable content.

“It wasn't sudden, but Zac spent more and more time on the computer, and getting him to play outside, or to get him off [the computer] in the evening to start winding down before bed, got harder and harder and was a constant source of arguments at home,” he says. “I imagined a simple box with some parental controls could make it a whole lot easier.”

He dropped a line to his friend and former Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) classmate, Adam, who was then living in the Virgin Islands, and told him to get on a plane: he’d found their idea.

The idea

KoalaSafe is a simple box that parents can plug into an existing home router to monitor and control – via a simple smartphone interface – how much time children are spending on internet activity, and where that time is spent. While parental controls are nothing new, Adam and Steve’s product is different. “The big thing about KoalaSafe is it can protect all devices in the home: PlayStations, Xboxes, Apple TV, iDevices, and any devices visitors bring over – all from the convenience of a smartphone or tablet.”

Tapping into Sydney start-up accelerator Startmate, the pair garnered $50,000 in funding to prototype the device, along with invaluable mentoring, advice and networks. After refining the device’s physical design with some help from Adam’s brother Nathan, an industrial designer, they went to market with a sleek and unobtrusive design that sits comfortably alongside the most modern of devices – something Steve sees as crucial. “A friend of mine put it like this: the era of bad design is over. Apple changed all that. It has to be beautiful.”

It’s what’s inside that box, though, that gives parents valuable insights – the KoalaSafe system is capable of delivering comprehensive analytics in real time. “This feature is my baby, it’s my favourite thing about KoalaSafe,” says Adam. “One of the leading signs of cyber-bullying is a drastic change in online usage. KoalaSafe can show you your child’s usage patterns over time per category, site or app. This information can be used as an early warning system to talk to your child about what may be going on in their life.”

But it’s more than just tracking the digital footprints of children – the device has significant potential to impact health outcomes as well. Alongside the more obvious physical benefits of active time outdoors, there’s growing suggestion by researchers, including UTS’s Professor Kathryn Rose, that there is a correlation between rising rates of myopia – or blurry distance vision – in children, and reduced time spent outside in the daylight.

The beginnings of a partnership

Adam and Steve met at Gosford High School, becoming fast friends despite a fierce rivalry on the basketball courts, and set their collective sights on the Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) at UTS. Even their UAI scores were incredibly close, Steve pipping Adam by just 0.25 to earn a place in the prestigious scholarship program, while Adam just missed out, instead gaining entry via a computing science degree before transferring to the BIT in second year.

After graduation, each worked in business and in major banks – Adam for Deutsche Bank and RBS, Steve for Macquarie Bank – before taking the leap of faith and establishing their business partnership. “Being friends for 23 years means we know each other well, but it also raises the stakes going into business together. Business partnerships can go south, so we both had to be very sure we wouldn’t be risking our friendship,” says Steve.

So far, so good: KoalaSafe is already in homes across Australia and the United States, and the pair have launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of pre-selling 1000 units to establish mass production. “Beyond that, we plan to sell directly through our KoalaSafe website (www.koalasafe.com) and online marketplaces like Amazon,” explains Steve.  “We are in discussions with telcos regarding bundled distribution, but that’s not our focus initially.”

It’s welcome news for parents facing new challenges in raising millennials. “When kids are playing around the house you can see and hear what they are doing. KoalaSafe can help be your eyes and ears in the digital world,” says Adam.

Story by Jenifer Waters
Photographs by KoalaSafe