Queensland’s Mackay with a population of around 85,000 has become a hub of startups and innovation focused on the area’s proximity to mining and sugar cane industries.
Jarryd Townson is the founder of Split Spaces, a non-profit co-working space based in Mackay. As with many regional towns, the co-working space has become the centre of a developing network of entrepreneurs and founders looking to grow businesses locally – and for the national and international markets.
Mr Townson said that one of the challenges for local business people is understanding what a startup actually is. “The startup scene is both good and bad,” he said. “In regions there’s a challenge about what constitutes a startup is, and there’s ambiguity around innovation.”
Having said that, he said, there are a lot of people doing what he described as “cool stuff”, including Ryan Norris, founder of the smart conveyor roller company Vayeron, whose products are used in the mining industry. Mr Norris established his business after inspecting conveyors as a graduate engineer and, as with many founders, realising there was a problem that could be better solved using technology.
“Roller failures are one of the top three reasons conveyors stop,” he said. “This has a major effect on mine productivity, and globally failures are the leading cause of underground coal fires.”
Veyeron is essentially an Internet of Things (IoT) play, with the rollers connected wirelessly to a reporting system back at base. If a roller is in danger of failure, it signals its status and can be pre-emptively changed before an issue arises.
“Hardware is an intrinsically difficult thing to do, and we needed to convince mining operators there was a business case for our product,” he noted.
According to Mr Norris, Mackay is the perfect place for his business because Veyeron is right in the backyard of key customers.
“Everything is within driving distance,” he said. “Mackay is like a big family, you don’t get lost in the crowd and it’s easier to access support when you need it.”
Another new business benefiting from the proximity to mining is 4PS Software. It’s a Software-as-a-Service product focused on compliance and employee documentation. This is important because many workers in mining and construction, as well as related industries, need to have tickets to work on site, and employers need to monitor whether those tickets are valid, otherwise the staffer can’t come on site.
According to founder Mick Storch, companies would often use spreadsheets to track worker tickets, as well as whether tools were compliant. This becomes difficult to manage, and so Stoch, who was a safety consultant, realised there was a better way of doing things. He looked around for a software solution, but realised there was nothing on the market and decided to build his own.
“We have been building for a long time, and now we’ve got the core locked down and so we’re focused on better usability and making people’s lives easier when they’re on the worksite,” he said.
Mr Storch said there had been a growth in innovation in the last few years, fuelled by Split Spaces, and also via support from the local council. He said the council regularly sends representatives to events at the co-working space, and is always looking for new ways to help startups and local innovation (the local council did not respond to several contact attempts).
In a twist on the regional innovation theme, social networking giant Facebook has also been active in the Mackay area. It recently hosted the ‘Boost Your Region – Mackay’ program, which was the first regional outreach program the company has undertaken in Australia.
“The goal of the program is to build up the digital skills of regional communities,” said Mia Garlick, director of policy, Australia and New Zealand, Facebook.
The program was held over 10 days and had twenty events, including one-on-one business consultations, mobile content workshops and online safety events.
Ms Garlick said Mackay was chosen in conjunction with the Department of Regional Development, which identified the area as one where jobs were changing and there was potential for growth.
“We had 750 businesses through the door,” said Ms Garlick. “It generated a real buzz in the community and we loved being there, and being part of the community.”
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