Sydney Startup Hub misses the deeper technology opportunity

23/08/2017
Marin

Article by Petra Andrén. Originally posted in the Australian Financial Review on 22nd August, 2017.

The soon-to-exist Sydney Startup Hub has been pre-emptively hailed a “quantum leap forward” that will help the city “compete on a global scale” with other technology centres. For those who followed the White Bay debacle, it sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

The hub will relocate several prominent start-up hubs, including Stone & Chalk, Fishburners and iCentral, into one shared space above Wynyard train station. The office space will be subsidised, close to public transport, and residents will count as their neighbours some of Sydney’s finest corporate behemoths and funders. Tick, tick, tick.

The knee-jerk response might be to point out that these hubs already enjoyed these basic features in their original homes. But this would be to remain focused on the wrong part of the equation.

A better question is, Why does our focus remain so narrowly on digital and fintech start-ups, when they comprise such a small component of the overall technology ecosystem?

Agonising over whether Stone & Chalk’s digital start-ups will get to market faster if relocated 500 metres up the road and within a larger cohort of more of the same digital start-ups is an opportunity lost.

It’s way past time that dedicated resources are also directed towards a different, largely neglected category of start-ups: our far more intensive and impactful deep technology start-ups.

Far more tragic, from this point of view, than Google’s rejection of White Bay was the Australian Technology Park’s rejection of Atlassian in favour of Commonwealth Bank.

Perfect location

ATP, as the park is known, is the perfect location for a deep technology start-up hub. It’s already home to Cicada Innovation’s cohort of deep technology start-ups and scale-ups, who are building everything from combat robots to bone glue to plants that can be grown on Mars. Australia’s largest angel investment group, Sydney Angels Inc., meets on the premises every week.

And though York Butter Factory just moved in (despite its digital retail focus better placing it in the CBD hub), there is plenty more space yet to be occupied by true deep technology start-ups.

But these types of start-ups require more than just a funky desk, foosball table, and a strong internet connection to thrive.

They need access to world-class universities and research institutions, with pathways to transition academics and their intellectual property into industry.

They need networks of investors capable of seeing the bigger picture, and comfortable with the longer-term investment horizon required by more capital-intensive projects with more rigorous and lengthy incubation periods. They need legislative support at all levels, including government funding and tax incentives. 

Government needs to step back

They then need a government that will take a step back and hand the reins back to industry, to organically develop a “pay-it-forward” culture where those that have had success are incentivised to give back and share what they’ve learnt with up-and-coming start-up founders – instead of having the government come in and force the introduction of service providers as mentors and coaches who may not have been there or done that.

They need specialised infrastructure and unique equipment. They need labs where they can blow things up, shoot their lasers, and test out their robots and drones, and a “maker space” for high-end machinery and prototyping.

And they most definitely need to be positioned in a start-up cluster where Australia’s most successful technology start-up on record isn’t rejected in favour of a bank!

We are pleased that the government appears to realise the benefits of start-up clusters, and we hope their new CBD cluster manages to stay put for more than a few years, unlike past clusters.

But we also wish they would quit blindly fumbling their way forward by neglecting to consult with the very stakeholders who possess the greatest knowledge on what will make them work.

Because it’s one thing to mess up a digital start-up hub. Try getting it wrong when you’re dealing with lasers and robots.

 

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