Students key in bringing new innovations to market

2 April 2019
Fresh from his TEDxYouth talk, University alumnus and INCUBATE co-founder James Alexander talks about how students and researchers will play an important and unique role in building Australian businesses and innovating for the future.
University alumnus James Alexander

University alumnus James Alexander 

“The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed”. This is one of my favourite quotes from Canadian-American cyberpunk writer William Gibson.

The intersection of cutting-edge research and technology is a fantastic place to live, sometimes like a mini version of the future. It’s where many of the top researchers and students at university reside, helping uncover new discoveries to push their field forward. Often they can see far into the future, to where things are going.

Over the past decade, a new type of entrepreneurial thinking, and specifically a startup methodology, has emerged creating a common language for entrepreneurs around the world. Distilling best practice from the centre of startups and innovation; Silicon Valley.

This change in thinking means we no longer think of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial education as ‘executional’, such as a way to make existing companies bigger through sustaining innovation, but now also realise the huge potential in entrepreneurial experimentation; creating new and often disruptive innovations that can create whole new markets.

One of the consistent requests I receive when talking to students and researchers is their desire for impact. Impact can, of course, take on many forms but one of its most ‘impactful’ forms is through a company that solves a burning problem through new innovation. Providing a ’10 x better solution’, as the mantra goes.

University researchers and students are uniquely placed to take advantage. Combining cutting-edge research and technology with new entrepreneurial thinking, we can bring new innovations to market that could have a huge impact. But we’re still missing a key ingredient –– entrepreneurs.

The INCUBATE Hub at the University of Sydney

The INCUBATE Hub at the University of Sydney

Luckily Australia is in a new era of innovation, despite our self-defeating rhetoric typically along the lines of ‘we’re too small’ or ‘we have no money’, the entrepreneurs just get on with it. If you don’t believe me, let’s list out a few facts:

  • More funding has poured into venture capital, the type of financing risky startups rely on to grow, than ever before in Australia's history with over $3 billion put into funds over the last few years
  • Over $500m reserved for university-founded or deep-tech startups through firms such as Main Sequence Ventures, UniSeed, IP Group and upcoming firms like Galileo Ventures
  • There is more support on campus than ever before for new entrepreneurs through places such as the INCUBATE Hub, which is a dedicated startup space
  • On the flip side, we’ve had multiple hundreds of million and billion dollar ‘exits’ in the past year –– an important part of the equation where companies list or are acquired and the money is distributed to staff and investors after years of hard work
  • Investments in Australian startups is growing fast, with some data indicating it is faster than Europe or USA, growing plus 65 percent between 2016 and 2017.

Closer to home with my work at INCUBATE we’ve seen many talented researchers and students come knocking for help. Two recent examples include Green Atlas, who are founded by two of Australia’s leading field roboticists, helping farmers understand their yield through machine vision.

And secondly BioScout, founded by students to help prevent crop disease and recently accepted into StartMate seed accelerator after their time at INCUBATE.

I like to think that universities are places where people hold privileged positions –– exhibiting a deep understanding of an area and able to see where things are heading. But we need more people to help translate these insights and innovations into real-world startups that can create new products and services and, potentially, whole new markets. 

I hope more students and researchers will take the plunge and join the global entrepreneurial movement to bring innovation to the rest of us and more evenly distribute the future. 

James Alexander is a graduate of the University of Sydney and Co-Founder and Program Manager of INCUBATE, Australia’s largest student accelerator program based at the University of Sydney. James recently took part in TEDxYouth@Sydney, of which the University of Sydney is a proud partner.

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