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IDEA Network repurposes the student entrepreneur

For some students, it can be hard to feel any enthusiasm towards clubs and societies. They can seem, at best, like a social opportunity, and at worst another commitment without any sort of visible outcome.

But the startup group IDEA Network demonstrates a more overtly practical example of student run organisations. The group regularly offers workshops with visiting and local entrepreneurs, such as Leigh Angus and Stephen Phillips, and is midway through its inaugural pitch competition, an iLab Germinate program held exclusively for members that culminates at a Pitch Night held this Friday at City Hall.

Since its inception as a small, student group in 2010, the network acquired sponsorship from iLab in 2012 and has since developed partnerships with River City Labs, Microsoft Innovation Centre and other organisations. The group’s current president, fifth year Law and Commerce student Farhan Huq, passionately believes in the platform’s capacity to connect students to Brisbane’s startup environment.

“I think students really need to know that it’s an avenue for their future,” Huq says. “They don’t just have to go to university and study, and work for another company, they can work for themselves.”

“We want to just be that voice for students about entrepreneurship and work closely with all these startup communities developing in Brisbane, and link them to our students,” he says.

Joining in 2013 as VP of Marketing, Huq has seen the University of Queensland group grow to include Queensland University of Technology students, and create another branch head by QUT student Christopher Drake. He says the group pushes a number of outcomes, notably networking through the events, education through the workshops, immediate and practical benefits through the pitch competition and, lastly, a social opportunity.

“Networking, the biggest thing, gets them introduced to the startup officials, the accelerators and incubators,” Huq says. “[In terms of education], some of our workshops are just guest speakers coming in and talking about specific startup things,” he says.

“We do casual pitching competitions and offer students River City Labs and iLab programmes,” he says. “And the fourth thing is purely just social, have a drink with your friends, and maybe meet some teammates.

“It’s the best time for ideas to foster and chuck ideas around to see what people like and what catches on.”

Last Tuesday’s event, held at Microsoft’s innovation centre, featured a discussion on market validation by NICTA Industry and Investment director Leigh Angus. Angus watched the network evolve during her time as iLab director, and believes in the network’s role in exposing students to the entrepreneurial culture.

“It’s inspiring young people to think beyond jobs and employment, and thinking about enterprise and backing themselves,” Angus says. “Not thinking that once they leave university they need to find a job, because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do, but to think ‘they are the job makers, they are the new enterprises’.”

“These folks aren’t committed to jobs or mortgages, they’re not expensed out, they don’t have kids,” she says. “So they have the freedom to think broadly and to do big.

“There’s nothing kind of harnessing or holding them back, which I really like.”

Like many startups, IDEA Network does face a disconnect between its management and technological sides. Huq says that while the group has found great success in reaching out to students across faculties from Science to Arts, there has been some difficulty in bringing in IT students.

“We’ve tried to reach out to the faculties and the IT students, but we feel like a lot of them don’t really know about the startup world,” Huq says. “They’re just getting pushed into companies and organisations but don’t really consider startups.

“We’ve got a lot of business, science and arts students, it’s just those tech students we need,” he says. “They’re so invaluable to us.”

Perhaps the tech students really aren’t considering startups as “career” options and are simply uninterested in groups like IDEA Network, but this could just as easily be a case of them pre-emptively saying, “No, I will not be your technical cofounder“. Whatever the case, we know that a high proportion of the Australian startups that make it onto our radar, either because they’re growing or because they’ve gone through programs such as Startmate, do have technical founders.

And while the network has focused on this issue throughout the year, with fliers in tech areas and collaborations with groups such as UQ Computing Society and Electrically Based Engineering Student Society, Huq admits that, “to be honest, we haven’t done all we could have done towards that, and I think it’ll be something the person looks at next year to really get them involved.”

Still, while it may be lacking in tech members, IDEA Network has already demonstrated remarkable success in a relatively short timeframe. According to Huq, the group has grown from 80 members in 2012 to over 800 students, and has already fostered companies such as Startup Travels.

The members, such as post-graduate Business student Zoe Liang, ranged from beginner entrepreneurs to business owners, and clearly embraced the industry’s trademark collaborative, outgoing energy. Liang joined the group with plans to eventually create her own startup, and appreciated their “fashionable attitude” towards running a company.

Finally, Huq hopes the network will continue its expansion towards a Queensland, and ultimately national, branch for student entrepreneurship, something to rival America’s educational system.

“A lot of countries are already developed in that regard, I think it’s compulsory to do computer programing at Stanford University, even if you’re doing medicine,” Huq says. “They’ve understood there’s such a big market for innovation and a big need for it as well.”

“Australia is obviously lagging behind the States,” he says. “Sydney is supposedly the tech capital of Australia, but why not Brisbane?

“We want Brisbane to be at the forefront of it, and we want guys like iLab and River City Labs to help foster that as well.”

About Chris Woods

Chris Woods (@tophermwoods) is the Tech Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Brisbane, has worked in places like Sydney and New York (State of), and will someday update his media-news blog.