StartInno reflects on 5 years as Byron Bay’s startup and innovation Hub.
As a serial tech entrepreneur I’ve been extremely privileged to have been on many startup adventures. My wife Sarah (also a great hospitality entrepreneur) and I moved to Byron Bay just as I was completing a PhD through the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, QUT in Brisbane. My research was based on assessing innovation and collaboration projects across NSW, QLD and VIC, so Byron Bay being an amazing Creative Industries regional cluster was ripe for applying not only my research but also 20+ years of tech industry experience. My earliest success was part of a tech startup that IPO’d on the NASDAQ which then sold to Oracle (at the time the 2nd largest tech company in the world). Years later, after leaving a tech-executive career I became involved in Sydney’s startup scene, specifically with Pollenizer - trailblazers which spawned the likes of Muru-D, and groomed leaders like Dean McEvoy (now TechSydney) and Mike Cannon-Brookes (Atlassian). Pollenizer was not only a true pioneer but a catalyst for startups across Australia so I saw a huge opportunity to extend those networks to the Byron Shire region. At the time there were also no coworking spaces - low cost Hubs which small businesses need in order to thrive - in the region, so running on the smell of an oily rag, we opened StartInno in 2014.
We utilised space above Sarah’s 100 Mile Table as a “cafe and coworking” type model. Coworking alone is really a real estate play (like WeWork) but I also really wanted a hybrid approach that focused on “Startups” and “Innovation” (hence StartInno). We spent a lot of time looking at the amazing businesses and successes in the region and quickly realised that the “lean startup movement” was still very nascent. Specifically we wanted to make startups accessible, affordable and to “activate” people who may otherwise believe that becoming an entrepreneur was unreachable. Our mantra was #juststart. With a small collective of mentors, our vision was not to turn the region into a bunch of gold digging get-rich-quick schemes, but educate a “can-do” entrepreneurial mindset that could bring about impactful change.
Here’s what happened.
50+ Incubator (pre-accelerator) & Accelerator Program participants. 4 major Startup Academy pitching events with 400+ attendees (plus our first investment). Created StartupAcademy.org online learning platform which ran in >100 countries (rockstar moment interviewing Adam Cheyer, Co-founder of SIRI and Change.org). 10 Intern volunteers, many who have gone on with successful careers (including one at Google). First Startup Weekend in Northern NSW. 100+ free Meetups and startup community events. 200+ Coworkers. 20 Partnerships. 5 Patents and many, many exciting regional startups still striving to do great things… phew. Most of all meeting great people and learning about them, their ideas and vision to change the world. Without them (you!) we would have been nothing.
A luminary moment was back in 2017. We were invited to participate in the first Startup Catalyst Community Leaders Missions to the USA: 18 startup community leaders from accelerators, co-working spaces, founder groups, and Universities across Australia, visit their counterparts running accelerators, co-working spaces, and investor groups in the US, as well as the Aussie mafia. The majority of the Leaders were from Queensland and I was blown away with how advanced the group was, not only from Brisbane but more than half the group were from Regional Queensland. We met amazing CEO’s of TechStars (the 2nd largest Accelerator after Y Combinator), BoomTown and Rockies Venture Club all punching above their weight in Boulder, Colorado showing us what Regions can really do (David Cohen’s #givefirst mantra the best!). We also spent time together in Silicon Valley but most importantly we formed ideas as a “group” which to this day, we still enjoy sharing when we meet.
I also fell in love. With a startup. From time-to-time you’re pitched ideas that really resonate so when I caught up at StartInno with an old colleague who ran a Pollenizer startup that I had previously invested— the rest as they say, is history. So for a while now we’ve been deep diving into an Augmented Real Estate startup called “Realar” which helps people see their building plans life-size on their smartphones before it’s been built. It’s truely amazing and we’ve been very lucky to have appeared in Steve Baxter’s (from Shark Tank) new TV show called #RiverPitch. It’s worth mentioning here that through the linkages of the Startup Catalyst network that we’ve been invited to participate in many pitching events so gain high exposure for our business. With #RiverPitch airing on free-to-air and pay TV channels we’re very excited to have made it to the Semi-Finals.
Most definitely the biggest FAIL has been the support by local and regional government. Back in 2016 we were lobbying government hard about the need for “Regional Innovation Ecosystems” voicing our experience and feedback in many information sessions in Sydney (at our own expense). StartInno was set-up as a “for profit” business (with minimal paid staff, less than your average barista) because in practice that’s what we’re also teaching businesses to be, rather than one that chases grants - hence we’ve never received any form of public funding. So it was great to see the Sydney Startup Hub (SSH) open a year ago (though the Regional Landing Pad is an under utilised space - I must have used it 20 times since and never seen more than 4 people in there).
We were though very excited when last year, after many years of toil (together with poor pre-NBN Internet) the NSW Government finally announced $2.1M of State funding to encourage local communities to work together and develop a proposal based on overcoming barriers to innovation (Local Innovation Network) and extend SSH. We were of course surprised when, for Byron Bay the winning bid went to “Sourdough Group forming a network of incubators and coworking spaces”. To their credit the original (now sadly departed) founders established Sourdough “as a resource to others utilising mature business people in the region/moving into the region” (and quite specifically NOT as a competitor to anyone). The surprise here was that the Innovation Hub (?) seems to have been conveniently created roughly the same time as the announcement of the LIN grant. So a philanthropy group, that (to be frank) focused on baby-boomers, opening a Hub (EIR a ‘Migration Agent’ ??) to run an “Innovation Network” was an odd decision to say the least. The $300,000 grant was awarded in June, 2018 and I’ve yet to see any outreach other than a one-pager website. With 3 months to go, not much has happened so the biggest loser is the community.
It would sound like “sour grapes” were it not for the fact that StartInno had previously supported the Sourdough Group, as volunteer mentors, and in the spirit of collaboration, sharing our “vision” and business model for the region. At one point in recent Press they laid claim to being “The first regional NSW pre-accelerator program” which of course is nonsense since StartInno has been running Programs since 2015. A more profound troubling issue however is not just an inability to be open and collaborate, but one of trust. The ethics of any mentor or Hub is built on trust with the safe-sharing of ideas paramount. So it is profoundly disappointing to see our shared-vision repurposed, cannibalised and poorly executed without any outreach or consultation—worse a tax-payer funded competitor. So much for “working together”… Bottom line is, StartInno as an Innovation Hub no longer makes sense in the region.
With Coworking spaces now a thing in Byron Bay (yay! last count was 5) we don’t see ourselves adding value fixing desks and managing internets. That’s not what gets us out of bed in the morning. Our passion is the “Ventures” side of StartInno, which also looks after startups like Realar, so it makes sense for us to grow and be part of the exciting new Gold Coast Innovation Hub just up the road. It’s a great 4-floor space, with world class facilities and open community. CEO Sharon Hunneybell, also a Startup Catalyst Community Leaders Mission alumni, is an energetic go-getter with a vision. At the GCHub opening at the end of last year, Mayor Tom Tate not only buys into that vision but supports the Gold Coast to be the Innovation Capital of Australia. In his closing remarks he told startups in the audience that “the City of Gold Coast has your back”.
We were one of them, see you in the Gold Coast.
StartInno in Byron Bay officially closes 22nd March 2019 in addition #StartupByron Meetup, StartupAcademy.org and Byron Angels will also cease operation.