Leigh Angus has a tough gig. She’s the Program Director of ilab, an independent division of UniQuest, aimed at incubating and accelerating Australian startups. Rather than employ additional staff to help run ilab, Angus and the management at UniQuest made the decision early in the piece to direct that money to grants for startups in ilab’s Germinate program.
It was a bold decision that has consigned her to crazy hours most days of the week, just like the entrepreneurs she mentors. On top of that, she’s a mum to school-aged children. These days, Angus has an intern and a part-time admin assistant to help keep ilab running.
Since coming into the role in April 2012, Angus has energised, not only ilab, but the south-east Queensland startup scene as a whole. Her obvious smarts, passion, work ethic and dedication to the entrepreneurs who are lucky enough to float within her sphere of influence have won her many fans and friends. A quick check of Angus’s LinkedIn profile shows that 22 people have taken the time to write glowing recommendations for her so far. That figure is something of an outlier in this community.
Angus’s current appointment at ilab is something of a homecoming. Now well travelled and worldly-wise, Angus grew up on the central Queensland coast in Mackay, moving to Brisbane in 1992 to study business, industrial psychology and HR at QUT. These studies led her to take a HR role at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in its earliest days, but Angus discovered HR wasn’t for her. Her career could wait, she decided. Instead, it was time to explore the wider world. Angus took off for Asia with a view to eventually finding her way to London to continue her career.
Within a month of her trip, however, she met someone who, it turned out, would become her life partner. All dreams of London were cast aside in favour of heading to Argentina, where her Israeli partner had family.
“[I had] just over twelve months across Asia, and then landing in Argentina where I actually got my first real job. That was working for a company doing marketing for Argentinian companies targeting the US. So that’s where I started to put my marketing hat on and realised that it was a skill and a field that I kinda liked working in.”
After a year in Argentina and some backpacking around South America, Angus converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel in 2000.
Angus was overwhelmed by the level of startup activity happening in Israel at that time, which was roughly at the peak of the dot-com boom. It was here that Angus got her first taste of startups, taking a marketing role in a tech startup called WizApp. WizApp, a drag-and-drop website builder, was funded and chaired by Yossi Vardi, perhaps Israel’s most famed entrepreneur and investor. At its peak, WizApp had 35 employees.
But WizApp was not to be. The bubble burst, capital dried up, and startups were not so much starting up as winding up. At WizApp, Angus was the last employee standing, forgoing salary in an ultimately futile effort to keep the company alive in its dying days. It was a hard introduction to the world of tech startups, but the lessons learned during that time have stuck with her.
“I got really good sales experience out of that, and really good tech licensing skills,” said Angus.
Since then, Israel’s startup ecosystem has rebounded, and by many measures rates just behind Silicon Valley as one of the world’s top regions for innovation.
“When we came back to Australia we often heard people saying ‘Oh, we can be an Israel or we can be a Silicon Valley’ and I kind of went, ‘Whew, that’s a big ask.'”
What is it about Israel that makes it a tech powerhouse?
“You have a whole combination of things going on in Israel,” explained Angus. “At the time you had highly skilled, classically trained Russians coming into the country who were jobless, so you were picking up talent very cheaply. Good talent at very low cost and putting them into these startups that were led by very entrepreneurial Israelis.”
The government, said Angus, also played an important role by implementing pro-startup policies. Furthermore, Israel has a long history of generous R&D spending. In fact, as a percentage of GDP, it has the highest R&D spending in the world at 4.2 per cent. Amazingly, this figure excludes R&D expenditure in the defence sector, which, in the eighties was known to account for a whopping 65 per cent of the total national R&D expenditure. In the same way that DARPA has stimulated technology innovation in the US, defence sector R&D spending has also contributed significantly to tech innovation in Israel.
“Second to that you have Israelis all over the world. For a small population, they are everywhere. They are thinking globally from day dot. So it doesn’t take much to kind of think ‘Right, I gotta jump on a plane to the US to have a meeting. Bang! I’ll do it.’ So they are driven to be outward looking all the time.”
Beyond the connection between military R&D spending and tech innovation in the private sector, Angus believes the Israeli military also benefits startups in other ways.
“A good proportion of the people coming out of the IDF are well trained in themselves. There’s another factor, as well. I don’t know whether it’s controversial or not, but they’re military disciplined. It was a special melting pot of all these factors,” said Angus.
“But just from my observations, Israeli entrepreneurs love the sale. They like to go out there and they ask for the sale, and they push their product or they push their technology and I don’t see that as much in, say, Australian culture, where we kind of sit back a little. I see a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs who are not as hungry for a deal.”
After a stint for another Israeli company as marketing manager for western Europe, in 2004 Angus and her partner decided it was time to head back to Australia. They determined that Sydney was the most likely place to find work in tech companies. In 2004, though, Sydney’s startup scene was not what it is today, so she joined Canon as market development manager, where she introduced solution selling to Canon’s salesforce.
Ever the scholar, during her time away from Australia, Angus completed a grad certificate in engineering and tech management awarded by UNSW. Then in 2007 she commenced a PhD in Business/Science with a focus on nanotechnology. Angus was the first employee in Canon’s sales and marketing division to be supported by Canon to do a PhD.
It was while delivering a paper in Melbourne on the branding of nanotech and the misuse of nano in the market that Angus met someone from UniQuest, the University of Queensland’s commercialisation arm. By 2008, Angus had started in a role with UniQuest at the University of Technology, Sydney, as a manager of innovation and commercial development. Angus was one the managers assisting with building out UniQuest’s presence at UTS.
By late 2011, Angus decided she wanted more startup action, so she made it known that she was seeking other roles within UniQuest. It was then that the ilab opportunity presented itself. She moved to Brisbane from Sydney in April last year.
Angus and UniQuest have more-or-less rebooted ilab, changing its focus from incubation to acceleration and relocating it to UQ’s premises at Long Pocket. Driving ilab has consumed Angus for the past 18 months.
Like River City Labs and Creative Enterprise Australia, Angus said that ilab was about educating and supporting entrepreneurs.
“We have an acceleration program where we seed fund a group of projects or entrepreneurs with their ideas at either idea stage or at prototype stage, and we put them through a very focussed three months of ‘get it built and get it out and validated by the market.'”
There are two intakes each year at ilab. Applications for the November intake are currently open.
“We’re about to finish with a cohort now. They’ve spent the last three months working on their projects. So the third cohort is coming through now, and then we’ll take up our fourth cohort in November.”
“We have a slight dropout, as you would expect. Some people half way through realise that this is not what they were expecting it to be. It’s too hard or it’s too stressful, or as a team they’re not gelling properly. But the bulk of the teams that are coming through all get to launch products, and are all building out their products in terms of growth and numbers of users.”
Angus puts a great deal of effort into growing and maintaining mentor and investor networks that can be leveraged by ilab startups.
“Obviously we’re aware of the angel community locally, and we try to engage as much as possible with them where we can, where we know who they are. In recognising that the angel community is small up here, ilab is now raising a fund for our graduates with a group called Artesian Capital down in Sydney. That will act as a small follow-on fund for a subset of these teams coming through who qualify, to give them some more runway.”
Startups entering the Germinate program are taught and encouraged to apply the customer development approach to creating a viable and scalable business model.
As Angus puts it: “There is no business planning done within the three months of the Germinate program. If anything, in the first couple of weeks these guys are encouraged to go out to market. Don’t code a single thing. Go out to market, paper prototype your ideas, do some testing internally with those paper prototypes, chat with a few people in the sector who you feel are going to be either the end users in terms of consumer or they’re going to be strategic partners in terms of your channel, get a feel for who’s out there in terms of players before you cut a single line of code.”
Some eyebrows were raised when it was announced ilab would relocate from its premises in Toowong to UQ’s facilities at Long Pocket, a quiet part of Indooroopilly nestled in a tight bend of the Brisbane River. The location is remote enough that ilab installed a Telstra mobile phone repeater to enable mobile phone reception at the premises.
“Let’s talk about Long Pocket,” said Angus. “You’re right, everyone sort of went, ‘Oh, you’re moving out to Long Pocket, where the hell is that?’ Until actually people came out and said it’s really quiet, I’m ‘head down’ and there’s no distractions.”
The location of ilab means that Angus has had to nurture an entire micro-ecosystem, and encouraged a culture of sharing resources and “paying it forward.”
“Recognising that we’re slightly out of the ecosystem, we created our own. So all these guys are brought together on a semi-regular social basis to have the chat over a drink, and we’ll throw in pizzas or sushi, and that’s to encourage them to come out of their booths and to start talking to each other.”
“We’ve got a whole heap of bartering that goes on between these guys. ‘I’ll do a little bit of your design work if you can write up my grant application.'”
“ilab is about giving back. Where you see that there’s a fit with another team or a network that you have or contacts that you’ve got, introduce them, bring them into the house.”
When asked which ilab graduates are likely to kick on and do something great, Angus nominated Ollo Mobile, HSK Instruments and FizzioFit. Of Ollo Mobile, Angus said: “I think they’ll raise because they’re persistent. They really deserve success.”
But she tempered that sentiment by acknowledging the difficulties faced by Queensland startups.
“It is hard raising money in Brisbane. It’s a very small subset of investors who like the level of risk associated with technology.”
Angus said the immediate future of ilab was secure, with enough funding for the program to support at least five more Germinate intakes, including this November’s. While the program has been working well, Angus is always keen to find ways to improve the experience and outcomes for startups using lessons learned from previous cohorts.
“We introduce a new idea or we change the selection process slightly,” explained Angus. “The general consensus from our mentors is that this cohort is doing really well, so I think we’re getting better at selecting them and working with them. Can we do that even better? Probably, yes.”
It’s encouraging to see ilab employing some of the same methods it teaches to its entrepreneurs.
As the interview came to an end, there came a knock on the ilab boardroom door. Angus’s next appointment had arrived, eager to begin their meeting. For a place that copped a bit of early criticism for being too far away from everywhere, ilab is a bustling space, and that’s largely down to Leigh Angus.