Many in Australia’s tech sector were devastated at last month’s decision to award the redevelopment of the Australian Technology Park in Sydney to a consortium led by the Commonwealth Bank over a bid by Atlassian.
The Atlassian proposal envisioned ATP as a technology hub for the city, pooling space, resources and brain power into a centre of gravity for the nation’s technology in the hope that it might spawn future successes like, well, Atlassian, which is likely to start trading on the Nasdaq within days on a valuation of around $3.5 billion.
Startup hubs and incubator-style co-working spaces offer two things startups need: a place to work, and access to a network of fresh knowledge but connecting with specialised people from technologists to mentors and investors. An important by-product is the sense of community that places like Fishburners, iCentral by The Start Society, and Tank Stream Labs create, improving work satisfaction and the promotion of the culture among the tech community.
The limited support for incubators in Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation statement, released today, has drawn fire from The Start Society founder Pete Cooper, an entrepreneur and leading voice in the Australian startup community.
While the statement has received a broad welcome from Australian business leaders and many entrepreneurs, Cooper says the $8 million incubator support programme announced today is unlikely to provide any assistance to iCentral as it currently has under $1.5 million in funding, has been operating less than three years and can’t wait seven months until July 2016 for support to kick in.
“There is a real risk we won’t even have a substantial ecosystem left to leverage new initiatives when White Bay [the Redfern ATP ‘replacement’] comes online in 2020-22. We need nurseries for startups now. Density is crucial for peer learning across the hundreds of topics a tech entrepreneur needs to get her head around, otherwise we can’t compete locally with out the latest skills,” Cooper told Business Insider in an email. “They haven’t written a ‘for dummies’ book for the technology, design and growth hack skills most of what our members use every day.”
The problem with space availability is not confined to Cooper’s iCentral. Murray Hurps, CEO at Fishburners, an incubator backed by high-profile investors including Google, News Corp, and NAB, said after the Australian Technology Park decision that Fishburners was at a loss about where else it would be able to grow.
“The nature of incubators is like universities. If we do our job tech entrepreneurs succeed and leave,” Cooper said. “This makes us feel good and satisfied but actually reduces our revenue streams.”
Cooper, who worked in investment banks including Rothschild, Macquarie and Standard Chartered before moving into startups, said there were plenty more levers government could be pulling for incubator spaces.
“We are volunteer advocates and educators. We are not rent seeking but we would like cheap unused govt buildings or bond guarantees (our building is getting redeveloped in early 2016 and I have to personally guarantee a six-figure bond for the next lease before the old place and old bond is returned), or help subsidising salaries (we are volunteer run) for education officers to scheduled and administer the lectures plus community managers to connect people. (We have real tech startups so they want to talk tech, not what some 60 year-old Aus Industry case worker wants to talk about from the 90s).”
iCentral is based in a former Centrelink office near Town Hall in Sydney and Cooper has a sense of irony about the transition between the uses of the building.
“Three of our teams (all at iCentral and all members of The Start Society) have hired a total of eight new interns and grads just this morning, but we are getting zero support from the innovation statement,” Cooper said. “Most are introduced by a program I set up in my spare time. Our office space used to be government funded desks for public servants giving away tax money (Centrelink) now it is full of self-employed tech startup entrepreneurs who are hiring more staff. And we don’t get one cent of government support. So f**ked.
“Don’t even get me started on the scale of this Innovation Statement. It should be 10 times larger, and faster and simpler to get world recognition for Australia. A $1 billion announcement (of which much was already pre-committed like wifi revenues from Aussie inventions) meanwhile a new $1 billion company is being created every four days in the USA and we should have $150 billion of our $2 trillion in superannuation into startups. We should be adding a zero or two and building the tech startup hub for Asia with 50 new incubators and a startup stock exchange.
He was also disappointed with the failure of the plan to make any attempt to extend Australian entrepreneurial projects into the vast Asian markets, “so startups can travel cheap and get closer to customers. 61% of the active internet users are in or overlap with the Sydney time zone, the launch pad program in the announcement is cute but a network of incubators is way more powerful and practical and works at home too,” Cooper said.