Sports tech firm PlayUp in liquidation after burning $70 million of high-profile investor funds

 PlayUp, in which Malcolm Turnbull once invested $1 million, is in liquidation.

A sports media business backed with more than $70 million in funding by some of Australia's business, political and sporting elite, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has been placed into liquidation.

PlayUp's holding company, Revo Pty Ltd, did not contest a winding-up application in the Federal Court in Melbourne last week, capping a dramatic nine years in business that featured grand plans of establishing sports gambling and then social media apps around the world and unrealised revenue projections in the billions of dollars.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  Photo: Justin McManus

Most shareholders have long admitted little chance of ever receiving a return on their investment, although company records indicated Mr Turnbull was able to claw back most of his $1 million investment in PlayUp back in 2013.

Revo, formerly chaired by businessman and former NSW premier Nick Greiner and backed by billionaire Bruce Mathieson and members of the prominent Ho family of Hong Kong, is now in liquidation, being managed by Grant Thornton Australia partner Stephen Dixon. 

Six former employees had sought to wind up Revo, claiming they were owed $500,000 in unpaid wages and superannuation. One of the company's shareholders, Ben Smith, also joined the action, claiming $100,000 in the name of his personal superannuation fund.

The move came after several winding-up applications were lodged last year, as well as PlayUp being reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman and its United Kingdom subsidiary being wound up after court action taken by a former executive over $100,000 in unpaid wages.

Established in 2006 by Melbourne advertising executive George Tomeski and Sydney's Luke Bunbury, PlayUp's board once featured Mr Greiner, Mr Mathieson, former Telstra boss Bob Mansfield, Asciano director Geoffrey Kleeman and Justin Ho. 

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All had stepped down by early last year. Mr Mathieson, a large shareholder, said he had not put money into PlayUp "for some time". When asked about the money he has lost, the billionaire said: "Its just one of those things. Some of my investments do well and some of them don't. This was one of the [latter]."

One who did get most of his money back was Mr Turnbull. Company filings showed his Turnbull & Co buying $1 million worth of shares in PlayUp shareholder vehicle Revo Nominees in mid-2012. 

Turnbull sold his shares

But in August 2013, Mr Turnbull sold his shares after his stake was revealed in a Fairfax Media story that questioned whether his shares in a media company might be a conflict of interest given his then role as communications minister.

Company records examined by Fairfax Media show Revo Nominees paying out $921,478 when Turnbull & Co shares were transferred back to the shareholder vehicle in November 2013.

PlayUp raised its first $5 million from angel investors in 2007. It also started working with investment bank Investec, which took equity in lieu of fees. The bank later sold down its stake.

PlayUp raised another $15 million in late 2008 and early 2009. Investors at that time included Mr Mathieson. A further $30 million was raised in 2010, when PlayUp become more focused on being a mobile phone sports gaming company.

Among the shareholders were Melbourne QC Allan Myers and his business partner, John Higgins, Sydney funds manager David Paradice and Goldman Sachs Australasia chief executive Simon Rothery, as well as Rich Lister Richard Smith.

Other investors have included former cricketers Steve Waugh, Brendon Julian, Graeme Wood and Adam Gilchrist and heart surgeon Charlie Teo.

PlayUp raised another $20 million in 2011, when it changed its focus to building a sports social media platform due to the rising popularity of smartphones, though gambling was still a priority for the company according to one former executive.

Sophie Neary, the former chief executive of PlayUp's European business in 2013-14, recently told Fairfax Media the company still had ambitions of being a wagering business overseas. "Peer-to-peer gambling and gaming was always part of the plan," she said. "The idea was that you could bet a friend a pizza, a beer or cash over the outcome of a sporting event."