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Queensland reaches maturity with Innovation and Investment Summit

In the words of David Hulston, “the Brisbane scene came of age” with the opening of April’s Innovation and Investment Summit. Hulston – an investor and longtime supporter of local entrepreneurs, who splits his time between Queensland and the UK – is in a position to compare.

His note of optimism about the future, and the feeling that the ecosystem is at a turning point, was echoed everywhere across the two-day event.

1.0 Highlights: Networking, Livestreaming, and Showing Off

“It’s ten times better than I expected it to be,” said TwoHoots founder Jo Ucukalo. Surprised by the visible enthusiasm and energy amongst attendees, Ucukalo encapsulated what we found to be the most common reaction to the summit.

Let’s be honest: even two years ago, an event like this would not have been possible. The sheer scale impressed entrepreneurs and investors alike, and, on top of international tech stars and angel investors, the summit showcased a range of new Queensland hubs, like Ipswich’s Fire Station 101, and government programs (more on that later). From a video chat with Apple I inventor Steve Wozniak, to booths with the latest virtual reality (VR) technology, to panels on social enterprise, feminism, health tech and more, the event was filled to the brim with ideas, products, and personalities.

Also, there were robots. At least three kinds of terrifically named robots, including QUT’s bionic crop-harvester Harvey; the pizza-delivering DRU, an acronym for Domino’s Robotic Unit; and everyone’s favourite member of the uncanny valley Pepper, the Japanese robot who returned to Queensland following her debut at the World Science Festival.

For many, networking was the name of the game, and there was no shortage of hands to shake. Watching attendees and speakers mingling and “deals being done within twenty minutes” of people meeting, Queensland’s Minister for Innovation Leeanne Enoch was clearly excited to be facilitating the state’s largest, and arguably most important, innovation event.

And with over 1200 people hailing from 17 different countries in attendance, this was an opportunity to build international connections. International speakers included global heavyweights such as Y Combinator’s Ali Rowghani and Silicon Valley Bank’s Bindi Karia, and their expertise ranged from facilitating funding to digital media to tracking the ownership and origin of diamonds in order to thwart theft and fraud.

But, in praising the global outlook of the event, Spike Innovation’s Colin Kinner also emphasised that networking opportunities don’t necessarily equate to funding opportunities, and that investment-ready startups should instead try to unlock existing funding available throughout the state.

“Does a two-day conference actually attract capital? I don’t think so,” Kinner said. “It’s certainly been good raising the profile of what we’re doing in Queensland, and a lot of people have been surprised at how much good stuff there is going on [here].”

I think [what’s important is] actually unlocking capital rather than attracting,” he said. “If you think about it attracting capital from other parts of the country or from overseas, that’s hard; we should be thinking about unlocking capital, because we’ve got plenty of wealthy people, we’ve got a growing number of angel investors… there’s a whole lot of money sloshing around.”

Finally, while regional startup teams had a visible presence, with an entire stretch of booths dedicated to hubs from Cairns to Toowoomba and everything in between, it obviously wasn’t possible to include everyone. Livestreaming the summit both online and within regional centres ensured that entrepreneurs from all over Queensland could get involved.

Fostering these kinds of knowledge-sharing experiences between people from different parts of Queensland goes hand in hand with Brad Feld’s advice on building connections between startup ecosystems across the state. The government may not be able to mandate collaboration between regions, but it can make sure that whatever happens in Brisbane doesn’t stay in Brisbane.

Whether people were talking about the burgeoning Brisbane scene, regional startup hubs, or about humanity’s next hundred years, the consensus seemed to be a future so bright we’d all be wearing VR shades.

2.0 Announcements: Hot DesQ

Chief amongst the government’s announcements, and complete with a 360-degree, VR introductory video, the $8 million Hot DesQ program is designed to lure interstate and international startups to Queensland. Successful applicants will receive up to $100,000 in funding (with a minimum of $50,000) in exchange for relocating to one of thirteen hubs across the state for a minimum of six months.

The program is a clever way to combine the need to attract startups to the state with support for regional startup hubs, and is for our money the best example of government intervention: drawing talent into the state, and providing funding and networking opportunities, but not dictating any specific products or outcomes. Enoch said Hot DesQ was also designed to attract expat entrepreneurs, including the 20,000 Queenslanders currently working in Silicon Valley.

The program is inspired by the wildly popular, government-backed Startup Chile program, which sponsors international startups on the condition that they relocate for three months and then showcase their startups to students around the country. But, as we discussed last year, the challenge with these kinds of initiatives is maintaining long-term advantages and relationships; even Chile had trouble retaining graduate startups until they introduced follow-up funding with Startup Chile SCALE.

To help alleviate this problem, Advance Queensland has added a final requirement: Hot DesQ entrepreneurs will have to earn “Network Points,” which can be earned through activities such as mentoring at hackathons, lecturing at universities, and social media engagement. Again, ensuring teams at least make an obvious effort to give back to the community seems like a smart idea, but time will tell how well this plays out.

Since officially launching Hot DesQ Enoch has begun promoting the initiative throughout her US trade mission, specifically at Silicon Valley incubator Plug and Play. Applications for the first round close in July, and reopen next May for the next annual intake. Finally, be sure to check out our follow-up on how Hot DesQ’s been received by the regional startup community, to be released later this week.

2.1 Announcements: Queensland Startup Precinct

While we’ve known about plans for a startup precinct funded by the state government (and another by the local government) for a while now, Enoch and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk used the summit to officially launch the hub, simply called the Queensland Startup Precinct.

Based in Fortitude Valley’s heritage-listed T.C. Beirne Building, the Startup Precinct will offer a range of services, from coworking and office spaces for startups, to investment and customer engagement opportunities, to international “soft landing” space. The precinct already has two foundation partners: local hub River City Labs, which will offer accelerator, incubator and networking opportunities to startup members, and CSIRO Data61, the largest data innovation group in Australia.

Enoch hopes the Startup Precinct will serve as something of a central conduit for Queensland entrepreneurs, for not just within the Brisbane ecosystem but also for regional communities.

“This precinct, which is a huge opportunity and a fantastic investment from government and from many others in the sector, it’ll also give us an opportunity to find ways to collaborate and connect with all the hubs that are emerging in our state,” Enoch said. “There’s actually quite a few happening in SEQ: you go to Ipswich, you’ve got Fire Station 101; Brisbane, The Capital; [and] Logan is also in that space looking for the opportunity.”

“These things are happening naturally and organically,” she said. “And that’s good, we encourage that. The precinct that we’re investing in, that already has these fantastic people signing up to be there, this’ll give us an opportunity to tap into what’s out there beyond a particular location.”

The Startup Precinct will cost $4 million, and is slated to open in October.

3.0 Challenges

The bright future being alluded to throughout the summit is not the inevitable result of the current tech boom. Even if Queensland is evolving, we’re still a relatively immature ecosystem, and if we’re going to compete internationally we need to identify and confront our major problems.

Let’s have a look at how the event addressed these challenges, and how attendees imagine we might face them.

3.1 Balancing the Role of Government within Startup Ecosystems

The very existence of the summit shows the government can see a valuable role to play in this space. In a particularly timely session on fostering a successful startup ecosystem, Brad Feld argued that government should support, but not attempt to lead, a local startup community.

Kinner, while also referring to Feld’s session, said that this relationship between government and industry makes our startup leaders responsible for strategising and helping to guide government initiatives.

“We’re at an inflection point where, it’s pretty clear that we’re going to go in a growth direction and pretty sharply, and I think that’s why it’s really important to have a strategy,” Kinner said. “[As Feld illustrated] the strategy can’t come from government, but I think there is an important role for the leaders in the startup community to work together.”

As we saw with Hot DesQ and the Startup Precinct, there are areas where it makes sense for government to take on a more pivotal role, such as attracting international attention, facilitating collaboration and funding opportunities, and supporting ecosystems outside of Brisbane.

For her part, Enoch echoed Feld’s perspective, calling the summit an attempt at “creating structured serendipity” and emphasising that an innovative future will require people outside the industry getting involved in some capacity.

“We want to be able to say ‘come here, we’ll support this collision of ideas and industry, and research and government and startups – all that – we’ll facilitate that,” Enoch said. “But what we want to come out of all that is not only the great ideas of the future, but this commitment to the innovation movement that we’re going to be required to have as a state.

“And I think that’s the story, not just for startups or for industry, but for all Queenslanders. We’re all going to have to pitch in for this one.”

Her pledge to advocate for greater commercial engagement between government and startups formed the centrepiece of a genuinely enthusiastic closing speech. If the Queensland Government really does see itself as a facilitator of entrepreneurship, then the future of startups in this state is something to get excited about.

3.2 Entrepreneurship Education

Another area that requires government intervention is education, where both industry and government members agree not enough is being done to develop skills and encourage young people to view entrepreneurship as a valid career.

While the government has encouraged STEM education with programs such as the Digital Technologies curriculum for schools and an honestly whopping number of university research and partnership programs, education around entrepreneurial skills, such as customer validation and MVP development, is generally lacking throughout the state.

According to Kinner, this is evidenced by our standards of mentorship. He says that “what passes for mentorship” in Queensland is often actually teaching, where mentors are forced to teach startup and business basics instead of guiding early-stage but educated startups through unique challenges.

“There’s a lot of founders that have never really gotten the fundamentals of how to do a startup under their belt,” Kinner said. “And so I think that what I see is a lot of one-on-one mentoring discussions; the mentor is actually teaching the founder some basic principles, like customer development or how to raise money or how capital works.”

“And these are things that you can learn in other settings,” he said. “I think that’s a missing piece of the ecosystem.”

To address this, Kinner is developing a twelve-week program with River City Labs mentor-in-residence Peter Laurie. Details are still forthcoming, but we look forward to hearing more about the program as it progresses.

And to their credit, organisers of the summit did include an existing example of a program filling this need: theSPACE’s youth-orientated “Emerging Entrepreneurship Program”. Running for almost a year now in Cairns, the ten-week program aims to teach students the startup basics, and, since partnering with James Cook University, will hopefully become available throughout more schools around the country.

And while the summit was not aimed at students, many attended, with some even showing off their startups in the exhibition hall. Additionally, TAFE Queensland’s RedSpace showcased their VR, educational entrepreneurial game, which is clearly the best way to learn anything.

Enoch also seemed aware of the value of linking entrepreneurship and education, and emphasised that “one of the things that I’ll be focusing on a little bit more is…entrepreneurial skills. How do we build entrepreneurial skills into all aspects of what we’re doing in the ecosystem?”

4.0 Final Thoughts: The Next Stage of Queensland’s Startup Ecosystem

Speakers and attendees brought up a range of broader issues Queensland faces as it develops its currently immature ecosystem. To reach the next stage, Ucukalo argued that innovators need to do more to reach the public, and relate the practical uses of new technologies and products to people’s everyday lives.

For her part, Enoch said that there are investment challenges that will require the federal government’s assistance; while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has talked up the #IdeasBoom since taking office, it took until the (much welcomed) startup tax breaks getting passed by the Senate in May to see much in the way of change.

“We need more venture capital in our system, and some of that requires the federal government to carry out what they’ve already said that they’ve been doing,” Enoch said. “But to be fair, they’re still in that stage of building movement; we’re already well and truly down that path in Queensland.”

Finally, in his session, Dr Curt Carlson reminded the audience that easier access to global markets means unprecedentedly ferocious competition between companies, for both customers and talented employees. As he put it, “you are all in the Olympics.” To make the most of this opportunity, Queensland startups will have to create literally world-beating products. Those companies will also need to make themselves attractive places to work, while Queensland will need to make itself an attractive place for startups to stay.

As far as the future of the event itself goes, Palaszczuk announced on the final day that SXSW organisers Myriad have signed a three-year agreement to host the festival. So in all likelihood it’s only going to get bigger and shinier (touch wood).

Still, the most impressive thing about the summit was the genuine enthusiasm and, trite as it might sound, camaraderie amongst the speakers, attendees and organisers. Believe us, there are still plenty of challenges within the ecosystem, not least of all, lingering fragmentation between startup hubs and government initiatives.

But if investors, entrepreneurs, and ministers can maintain the momentum from this event, then we should see an explosion of creativity in the near future. There is a lot to get excited about as Queensland looks to move from a set of small, splintered ecosystems to a full-fledged Startup State. Bring on the next stage.

Article by Chris Woods & Kit Kriewaldt; Main Photo: Advance Queensland 

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