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Startup paradise: Brisbane’s successful reinvention as innovation hub

From September 10-15, MIT's popular Bootcamp series will come to Taiwan. Labeled Beyond Food, the collaboration with the Taiwanese Haoshi Foundation sees the renowned university continue its push for globalization. The startup- focused event will be preceded by an installment of famed MIT professor Sanjay Rama’s Radical Innovation class, which will take place between August 2-3.

Caption:Startup paradise: Brisbane’s successful reinvention as innovation hub
James Huang

The MIT Beyond Food Bootcamp follows MIT’s Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, which took place in Brisbane this March. Known in recent years as the Australian startup capital, the city on Down Under’s northeast coast has made great strides towards becoming a regional powerhouse of innovation. Here, we are taking a look at the reasons behind Brisbane’s success story.

Advance Queensland

Beginning in 2015, the Queensland government under Annastacia Palaszczuk’s lead rolled out a massive support program aimed at tech companies and startups in particular. Thanks to its generous original endowment of $305m (AU$410m), the Advance Queensland initiative has benefitted over 900 startups and researchers already.

For a long time, Brisbane was in the shadow of the two other cities on the sunshine coast, Melbourne and Sydney. Compared to these two tourist centers, the city of 2.5 million situated on the Brisbane river was known more for the gruff blue- collar charm of its harbor than smart high tech.

At the same time, however, the city has been making a name for itself as a finance and information technology center for quite some time now.

Especially the recent windfall of Advance Queensland, which indeed is focused primarily on the state’s capital, has allowed Brisbane’s tech sector to attract investors, innovators, and internationals to come and settle in the state of sunshine.

Advance Queensland, which has been drafted with the help of business leaders, industry insiders, and academics, so far has produced astonishing
results. According to the state’s Minister for Innovation, Science and the Digital Economy Leeanne Enoch, between 2015 and 2016 the growth rate for startups rose from 16.6% to 19.3%.

The government expects that by 2025, Queensland’s tech sector could generate as much as $743m (AU$1b). With Queensland leading the way, Enoch points
out, startups could make up to $74b (AU$100b) of Australia’s GDP, ultimately creating well over half a million jobs.

Startup city: The Precinct

To achieve such growth, the state’s government not only provides the necessary financial means in the form of investments, scholarships for PhD students, or research grants for scholars. The long-term agenda also includes the creation of startup incubators as well as a center called the Startup Precinct, where new companies and entrepreneurs may connect with each other and investors, collaborators, or officials to obtain the help they need for their enterprise to succeed.

A mere 15 minutes from downtown Brisbane, the Startup Precinct is housed in the former T.C. Beirne Building, a department store from the early twentieth century that the Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation’s executive director Paul Russell describes as "Brisbane’s old fashion district.” Now, however, the traditional red brick complex has been transformed into Queensland’s innovation hub and houses the state’s newest and most exciting companies in its ultra-chic redesigned interior.

Beyond that, Advance Queensland offers plenty of opportunities for startups to improve their ideas, skills, and products. For instance, the initiative brought to life the Platform Technology Program, the Biofutures Commercialization Program, as well as the Ignite Ideas Fund, all of which are directed at young entrepreneurs to help them realize their projects. As Queensland’s Trade and Investment Commissioner for Taiwan Murray Davis exclaims, “we are expecting lots of great ideas!"

Hot DesQ: Bringing international talent to the State of Sunshine

In order to attract a more diverse set of innovators to Queensland, the government introduced the Hot DesQ global partnership award. Drawing talent from other Australian states and internationally, the funding program provides between $37,000 to $74,000 (AU$50,000 to AU$100,000) for 25 startup teams to settle in Queensland.

Although the grant is limited to half a year, Russell promises that they will try their best to allow interested teams to remain in Queensland.

Among the first round of winners was the Taiwanese team from Deepblu. What with the startup’s focus on diving hardware and their accompanying social network tailored to enthusiasts, coastal Brisbane with its relative proximity to the Great Barrier Reef was a natural choice for Deepblu’s second home.

In round two, simulation technology company Brogent from Kaohsiung will send a team to Queensland following the state’s invitation. As Brogent’s director of innovation Jiang An points out, “the zeal of Queensland’s government really surpassed all our expectations! After they learned that we are looking for another place of investment and cooperation right now they immediately invited us to Queensland, where they secured the required funds in two weeks' time."

Creating Silicon Beach: Myriad

Arguably bringing the most exposure to Queensland is the newly inaugurated annual startup festival Myriad.

Hosted in Brisbane and having gathered a cool $7.3b (AU$10b) of investment funds from international backers, the event brought together plenty of new talent and international speakers such as 500 Startups creative director Yiying Lu, Samsung NEXT Ventures associate McCall McIntyre, or Code Like a Girl founder Ally Watson.

While this year’s event was plagued by torrential rain and had to be shut down early, it nonetheless managed to attract plenty of international interest and underlined the ambitious vision behind Advance Queensland. In fact, for many in Brisbane the current push towards becoming a tech hub is not only aimed at improving the state’s future prospects, but also designed to reconfigure Australia’s economy.

More precisely, they hope that Down Under could move away from its reliance on natural resources towards becoming what insiders refer to as Silicon Beach, i.e. a regional node of innovation linked to the wider Asian-Pacific region.

MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp

MIT’s decision to cooperate with Queensland’s government over the Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp is further testimony to the early success the state is having. As Enoch points out, “having MIT come to run a bootcamp is a huge feather in the cap for QUT and Queensland.”

The bootcamp took place this March on the premises of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, itself one of the state’s foremost institutions of learning. As Enoch explains, the selection process was run by MIT, but Queensland provided three scholarships for local participants, including one exclusively for indigenous Australians.

According to Enoch, the bootcamp condensed a year-long course into five days of intense learning.

It was run by senior MIT business lecturers, who supervised students in their effort “to come up with a solution to a major challenge, find customers, start a company and then present their work to an international panel of venture capitalists from Brisbane, San Francisco and Boston.”

This September, the MIT Bootcamp makes its way to Taipei. Together with MIT instructors and industry insiders, participants will work on solutions to food-related challenges. Interested reader can check out the official website for more information.