INCUBATE is a 14-week program that helps University students, staff and recent alumni with technology-based ideas prepare for the market place. The program supports entrepreneurial ambition and drives innovation.
More than a persistent buzzword, “innovation” is hailed as the key to Australia’s future: the knowledge-fuelled cash cow to which the Turnbull government has pledged its identity and resources.
A growing and enthusiastic group of alumni, students and staff at INCUBATE began taking advantage of the mood for innovation in 2012. INCUBATE is a 14-week start-up program for gifted students, staff and recent alumni of the University that transforms innovative ideas into viable start-ups. The program was founded by two entrepreneurial students and developed by the University of Sydney Union.
Just a few years later, INCUBATE-assisted start-ups are collectively worth more than $25 million. “We look for the most talented entrepreneurial students who have innovative, technology-based ideas and want to build a business,” says INCUBATE Co-founder and Program Manager James Alexander (BCST (Hons) ’13).
Hundreds of applications are whittled down to eight for each INCUBATE session. Each receives $5000 of seed funding, working space on campus, advice from industry experts and mentoring from some of Australia’s most experienced business minds and University of Sydney alumni.
“We see students who have very innovative ideas but lack the support to take them to market,” Alexander explains. “A big problem in Australia is that we don’t have extensive support networks for entrepreneurs. Often the advice budding entrepreneurs get is dubious because it comes from the perspective of people who have no experience in building businesses.”
INCUBATE, one of only a handful of university-based start-up accelerator programs in the world, now counts more than 100 mentors as part of its team; they provide professional expertise, networking opportunities and guidance.
“We want our start-ups to make new mistakes, not the same mistakes,” Alexander says. “We want our mentors to tell them what to avoid.”
INCUBATE has already spurred the success of a broad diversity of start-ups, from Tzukuri’s unlosable sunglasses to Abyss Solutions' underwater robots, Fluid Education’s school-scheduling software, Breathewell’s interactive medical device for lung cancer patients and Persollo’s single-click payment tool.
For mentor Dr Michelle Deaker (BSc ’88 MSc ’91), a tech entrepreneur who is Chief Executive and Managing Director of leading venture capital firm OneVentures, INCUBATE represents a major change in the culture of entrepreneurship in Australia.
“The world has really changed since I started as a young entrepreneur,” Deaker says. “At that time there was absolutely no infrastructure for entrepreneurs. People didn’t even really discuss what it was.”
INCUBATE mentor Rob McInnes (BSc ’86 LLB ’88), a leading intellectual property specialist and partner at law firm DibbsBarker, has also witnessed the cultural shift in entrepreneurship.
“It used to be that people would join a big organisation at 23 and be expected to retire at 65 with a gold watch,” McInnes says. “There wasn’t really a management or business track for science graduates, let alone a start-up track where you would start your own business straight out of university. Now I think it’s fantastic that becoming a business owner is seen as within the realm of possibility in the short term for a university graduate.”
According to Alexander, the University and its community are uniquely placed to take advantage of the Turnbull government’s “ideas boom”.
“We’re at a turning point in Australia’s history - our current government’s push on innovation and its emphasis for universities to be involved is a big opportunity,” he says.
“INCUBATE is part of a transformation at the University from a traditional education and research institution to one that takes these skills and creates a meaningful impact on society.”
By helping exceptional young people fast-track their ideas into thriving businesses, mentors at INCUBATE are giving a leg-up to both the next generation and the economy.
“In economics, innovation is the free kick. Innovative start-ups tend to create high-value jobs. We’re in an environment where jobs that don’t actually add value can be sent offshore or automated. So it’s more and more important that the jobs we create are high value.”
Deaker agrees: “Generally speaking it’s the new, up-and-coming businesses that are the net employers in this country,” she says. “Technology is disrupting so many jobs in our economy. We need disruptive businesses to come through and create new jobs, which is why entrepreneurship is so critical in Australia.”
McInnes and Deaker are also both quick to extol the personal benefits of mentoring at INCUBATE.
“Every time I go to INCUBATE, I come back energised,” Deaker says. “There is an enormous amount of satisfaction in contributing to a legacy of developing the next generation of entrepreneurs and businesses. It gives you an additional sense of purpose, and you’re continuing to develop and sustain your own professional career.”
“We’ve got to move beyond a resources-based economy,” says McInnes, who has also chaired an international working group on transferring technology between universities and industry.
McInnes agrees: “What INCUBATE has proved is that you don’t need a lot of resources and industry experience to come up with a great idea. You just need some modest but efficient support and help from people like me and the INCUBATE team.”
INCUBATE is looking for mentors to provide expertise to the next generation of start-ups.
Here are just three of the many businesses, guided by alumni mentors, that have successfully taken the INCUBATE path.
Abyss Solutions uses state-of-the-art aquatic drones and data analytics to conduct underwater inspections of critical assets such as dams, bridges, boats and reservoirs.
“We were all academics – we’d been trained to look at a problem and solve it, but we didn’t really know how to do business,” says Co-founder and Chief Executive Nasir Ahsan (PhD 15). “INCUBATE helped us take our idea out of the research world and into the commercial world.”
The company now counts Sydney Water as a client and is in talks with other large companies in Australia and overseas.
Find out more at abysssolutions.com.au.
Persollo is a simple payment facility for anyone looking to sell something. It provides a link that can be shared anywhere, including on Facebook, Twitter, blogs or via text message. In a single click, customers can view products and process payment, with no need for elaborate frameworks or third party sites.
“We crafted Persollo to empower merchants, bloggers, freelancers, writers, developers and artists who want to sell their work directly to their audience anywhere, any time,” says Co-founder Olga Oleinikova (PhD ’16).
Persollo now has more than 100 active users in Australia, Japan, the US and the UK.
Find out more at persollo.com.
Fluid Education founder and current Bachelor of Arts student Giorgio Douehi conceived the company’s flagship product, Backpack, while still in high school. In his first year of university, Douehi took the idea to INCUBATE.
“Backpack is a scheduling platform for schools, built by students. It allows teachers to notify students and parents of upcoming events or activities, and can be seen from a simple feed anywhere.
“I found that parents were missing out on vital information at school, like upcoming exams or if sports were cancelled due to wet weather,” Douehi says.
“Backpack is unique because it was built by people who experienced first-hand the troubles of using the current education technologies.”
Find out more at fluideducation.com.
Other University resources helping new entrepreneurs:
Many INCUBATE participants started here. Genesis is a cross-faculty start-up program supported by the University of Sydney Business School. It has helped more than 700 first-time entrepreneurs, students and alumni focus their ideas so they’re ready for pitching to the marketplace.
It also runs in Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam in partnership with local education organisations.
Like INCUBATE, the program uses mentors who share their real-world experience. The program itself is free, but has high expectations of those taking part.
INCUBATE participants who have a deep tech idea with international potential might be invited to join ATP Innovations (ATPi).
ATPi is a technology business incubator that is 25 percent owned by the University of Sydney. In return for a small equity share of up to 5 percent, ATPi partners with technology-based start-ups to help them grow, achieve success and find investment through in-house personalised assistance and mentoring.
Currently it is guiding 70 businesses that will step away from ATPi when they have developed their own momentum. ATPi was recently awarded Best Incubator in the World in a field of 2800 other incubators.
Written by Katie Szittner (BA (Media & Comm) ’11)
Photography by Victoria Baldwin (BA ’14)