Leading by Example: Queensland’s Startup Champions

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Any movement needs its champions, and Queensland’s shift into an innovation economy has many worthy of this title.

It has been coming for a while, but the Palaszczuk government’s $180m budgetary commitment to support research and innovation has galvanised a fledgling movement to take action. The Best and Brightest Fund receives $50m to develop, attract and retain scientific and entrepreneurial talent, while the remaining money is channelled into attracting investment and encouraging collaboration between research institutes and industry.

For this initiative to gain traction two ingredients are necessary: legitimacy and execution. We must believe it can be done, that it is worthwhile, and that we are in it together. Collectively we must execute on this plan, turning vision into action and driving the new version of the Smart State. The various players in this movement will only take action if they feel it is a legitimate goal, and this is the role of the startup champions.

I am prompted to share these thoughts by an exceptional feat which occurred on the weekend: Mark Sowerby swam the English Channel. When I say exceptional, I am not referring to the 14 hours and 24 minutes he spent in the water completing the task, nor the months of training to get ready for the swim, but rather to the more than $700,000 he raised along the way for the Starlight Foundation to assist in building the new Starlight Express Room at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane (you can still contribute here).

Source: @swim4starlight

Mark Sowerby (Source: @swim4starlight)

It is often stated that one of the defining features of Silicon Valley’s success as the world’s top startup ecosystem is the Pay-it-Forward mentality of its people. Mark Sowerby exhibits this in spades. As the CEO of Brisbane-based Blue Sky Funds he challenges his staff each year to do something mentally and physically challenging: a call to action to inspire personal growth. Actions such as this weekend’s swim set the bar very high, and encourage his team to develop and grow. Leading by example adds legitimacy to the cause, encouraging action throughout his organisation.

Steve Baxters recent exposure on the popular Channel 10 show Shark Tank Australia has catapulted him into the public spotlight, but behind the scenes Steve has been a tireless champion of Australian startups for many years. A successful tech entrepreneur himself, he is a founding board member of the national advocacy group StartupAUS, the founder of the vibrant Brisbane-based startup coworking community River City Labs, and has developed several successful programs to support young entrepreneurs such as Startup Catalyst which takes 20 young Australian tech entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley for a life-changing experience.

Steve Baxter

Steve Baxter

For too long in Australia entrepreneurship has been viewed as a second-rate endeavour, something that is only pursued by those that “don’t fit the mold” or can’t make it as a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.This must change. CEDA’s recent research into Australia’s Future Workforce identified some notable findings, including the prediction that more 5 million jobs will be lost to automation in the next 10-15 years. Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte made a poignant comment about the jobs of the future: the roles that will flourish will be those that include “the creative application of technology to problems.”  In other words, the employees of the future need to think and act like entrepreneurs. Shows like Shark Tank Australia raise the profile of entrepreneurs while environments such as River City Labs provide a supporting space for startups to be nurtured and grow. Steve Baxter is adding legitimacy to the innovation movement through his actions, and is encouraging others to join in.

A recent example of this collaboration is the announcement of the Telstra muru-D accelerator program choosing Brisbane as its second location in Australia. River City Labs has partnered with muru-D to deliver a 14-week accelerator program comprising $20,000 in funding and a significant mentor network for five emerging startups (applications are open now!). Instrumental in securing this partnership (among others) was Aaron Birkby: serial entrepreneur, CEO and cofounder of Silicon Lakes, and one of the most prolific startup champions roaming the Queensland countryside, drumming up interest and encouraging emerging startups to “have a go.” Aaron is so committed to supporting the startup ecosystem that he took a job in government, serving as the Manager – Commercialisation for Queensland’s Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation. During his time in government he worked on securing government support for the sector, influencing policy and disseminating information into the community on the ways in which government can assist startups. Just as the fruits of his team’s labours came to fruition, and the budget was announced, he has agreed to leave government and become the Entrepreneur in Residence for the River City Labs Accelerator. Five lucky startups will benefit from his immense knowledge, charming personality, and unquestionable commitment to supporting Australia’s startups.


Aaron Birkby – in action, as always!

Mark, Steve and Aaron: three mortal men making a difference through leading by example. They are no different to you and me: we each have our unique background, set of skills, experiences, competencies, fears. What they show us is that an innovation economy in Queensland is a legitimate goal, that it can be achieved, and they show us by doing. The signs are clear and the winds are favourable. It is now up to us to take action and secure the future of Queensland’s economy.






2 Responses to " Leading by Example: Queensland’s Startup Champions "

  1. Joy says:

    Nicely said Baden!
    These guys are inspirational and proving that you do not have to live in the USA to build a successful startup, however we can learn a lot from what has been done by those who have paved the way.

    We are keen to see this type of opportunity spread further afield, into regional cities and towns, so the entrepreneurs that aspire to greatness do not feel that they have to migrate to the metropolitan areas to be successful.

    Fortunately, the availability of technology is improving in regional areas and making it physically possible to ‘startup’ from anywhere…and still connect with mentors such Steve & Aaron and the many others around the world who are supporting innovation & disruption!

    • Baden U'Ren says:

      Thanks Joy! I agree that technology enables knowledge transfer and is great news for regional areas. Importantly, critical mass encourages collaboration which promotes ideation and commercialisation (see this cool little video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU )

      Interestingly, Aaron Birkby has recently completed a tour of many regional centers promoting the Startup Weekend program 🙂