Two days in Wagga Wagga has left me inspired and encouraged about Australia’s capacity to build sustainable regional innovation ecosystems. The series of events I attended, coordinated by the Australia Post Regional Pitchfest, highlighted the power of collaboration, a need to do more, and pathways to get there.
My invitation was to represent Queensland in a role that Australia Post referred to as an ecosystem “activator”. I need to give a shout-out to Joy Taylor whose place I took due to the fact that she was delivering an entrepreneur boot-camp in regional Australia for the Women in Regional Entreprnure (WIRE) program, and her Startup Toowoomba co-founder Dave Masefield who was in Singapore for the Techstars Startup Weekend conference. Joy and Dave are regional ecosystem powerhouses selflessly delivering consistent outcomes for Toowoomba, Qld.
Two days of transformation
Tall Poppies breakfast to set the stage
My two-day Wagga immersion experience began with a packed Tall Poppies breakfast supported by the local Women in Business group. Local leader Naomi Stuart set the stage with some impressive statistics about regional startups overall generating an average revenue of $350k and employing an average of four employees. This was followed by a panel made up of StartupVic CEO Georgia Beattie, Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation (RIRDC) General Manager Belinda Allitt, and the Australia Post Regional Pitchfest Founder Diane Somerville.
The panel hit some great points about regional innovation, including:
- Many people don’t know what a startup is. You need to take them on the journey.
- Connectivity both digital as well as with outside networks can be a challenge, and collaboration is critical. A benefit in regional areas is that everyone knows someone and the speed of connection can be quick.
- Regional areas are doers. Many people just talk about doing something, but there is a need to just start and do it.
- Mobilising local investment requires education on all sides. Many angel investors do not know they are investors and many startups do not know about venture capital or accelerator programs.
- There should be no currency in simply introducing someone. The value is in execution.
Ecosystem Activators Workshop
Following the breakfast was what I saw as the main event: a 4-hour workshop with regional ecosystem leaders from across Australia sharing challenges and identifying opportunities for regional innovation ecosystems.
In the workshop we were able to openly share and unpack topics such as funding, sustainability, outcomes, measurement, programs, economic development, entrepreneur success, connectivity across Australia and globally, and more. Having the Australia Post team facilitate and guide the process was a huge benefit, especially in a room of people who often facilitate themselves but rarely get to participate. A main sentiment shared among the participants was an awareness that we all faced similar challenges and the value in collaboration.
Breaking bread at the local startup
That evening we went to local food cooking school startup FoodIAm. The evening reinforced the value of supporting and raising the profile of local startups, as well as the power of breaking bread together to build community. Sitting together around a meal in a novel environment breaks down barriers, builds trust, and creates relationships between people who otherwise might not interact.
The next morning we attended a reception by the mayor to the Regional Pitchfest finalists and supporting team. The event underscored the need for local council engagement in regional innovation.
Developing innovation ecosystems in regional areas is an economic development activity, with local councils being the primary beneficiary of its success. Financial and leadership support for innovation activity sends a clear message and helps build resilience in regional communities.
Wagga Wagga and Working Spaces HQ tour
We boarded another bus after the reception to take a tour through Wagga, ending up at Working Spaces HQ where entrepreneur and founder Simone Eyles shared the journey and vision of the space she founded. Not only did Simone start Working Spaces HQ from her own capital, but also created successful startup 365Cups.com.
Simone is an incredible resource for the local community and an entrepreneur in residence with practical, first-hand experience. It was an honour to spend time in her space and hearing her vision and passion.
Grand Regional Pitchfest finale
The two days concluded with the grand finale event where finalists pitched in front of a panel of judges for a first prize of $7,500, a trip to Silicon Valley, and an Australia Post ecommerce growth pack.
The quality of the pitches reflected the training the founders had received from the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP). The judges had a difficult task, with the finalists including:
- Next Address (Ballarat, VIC) Connecting people to property
- Edufolios (Adelaide, SA) Accreditation portfolio management for teachers
- GGs Flowers (Canberra) Socially sustainable florist helping those with special needs
- Deviant Distillery (Tasmania) Advanced maturation tech for spirits
- Site See (Gold Coast, QLD) Visualisation and analysis for infrastructure
- Edukits (Wagga Wagga, NSW) Kits to teach electronics and coding
- Emmaretta Hosiery (NT) Hosiery for everyone, with a focus on plus sizes
- Illegal Tender Rum Co (WA) Rum distillery
In the end, Deviant Distillery took home runner up and Edukits took home the prize. The clarity and confidence of both the pitch and acceptance speech of 14-year old edukits founder Michael Nixon was impressive.
Lesson #1: The role of the Australia Post Regional Pitchfest: Glue and boundary spanner
Ecosystems are made up of individual actors: founders, government policy and programs, investment groups, corporations, education providers, and service providers focused on entrepreneurial activity. These individual actors are loosely coupled through relationships based on short-term engagements of startups and related programs.
In addition to these individual actors are overarching associations and programs that provide a glue between different actors within a region. Programs such as Queensland’s Startup Catalyst and Office of the Chief Entrepreneur, Startup Victoria, and Western Australia’s Meshpoints build capability, share information, and connect actors across the ecosystem.
These programs often come with an inherent remit to stay within state borders. This can create a conflict in message, telling startups they must be local to receive support if they wish to create their global company. This can be unproductive when considering the relatively small Australian population and need for global access.
We need programs that build ecosystems across state lines and are not limited by agendas of localised funding.The Australia Post Regional Pitchfest connects regional ecosystems across the nation.
- inspired regional Australia,
- cut across regional, gender, and cultural lines, and
- created heroes for others to emulate and believe that anyone can give it a go.
Two indicators in ecosystem measurement are whether someone knows someone who started a business in the last two years and whether they believe now is a good time to start a business.
With a single program, the Australia Post Regional Pitchfest demonstrably shifted these metrics and improved innovation ecosystems across the entire nation.
Lesson #2: A need for an ecosystem builders summit
The experience we had over the two days in Wagga Wagga was similar in nature to the Venturer program developed out of the Queensland Office of the Chief Entrepreneur. As I previously posted from my own experience, the program built resilience not only in the individuals who attended but across the Queensland ecosystem.
In the same way, Australia Post has built resilience in the network of regional ecosystems across Australia. Relationships have been created, knowledge and wisdom shared, and practical projects birthed from the interactions of regional leaders.
But we need more. Australia needs an ecosystem builder summit. Similar to my call from my experience at this year’s inaugural Kauffman Foundation EShip Summit in Kansas City, Australia needs a conference for those actively building their respective ecosystems. One is in development, and I look forward to expanding the conversations we had with the leaders over the two days.
Share and collaborate
I was incredibly fortunate to immerse myself with incredible leaders in Wagga Wagga. However, much of my time I was thinking of ecosystem leaders across Queensland who would also benefit from the experience. I write this post in part to share the experience and continue the conversation with others who are doing exceptional work in ecosystems across Australia and the world.
Please connect, share, and collaborate through this post as we collectively plan next steps to more effectively build ecosystems that make a positive impact.