Property a top issue for TechSydney

James Riley
Editorial Director

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest tech industry lobby group to be set up – Tech Sydney – but the fact that the group will officially launch at an invitation-only dinner for 200 at the coveted Powerhouse site in Sydney offers a big clue.

It would be crude to describe TechSydney as merely a property play. But in Australia’s ecosystem capital, property-obsessed Sydney, an emerging industry with growth prospects that thrives on tight co-location will eventually need to turn its attention to property.

And that is where the tech ecosystem finds itself with the creation of TechSydney.

Elbowing its way into a bigger chunk of central Sydney – finding a home for the city’s growing base of tech companies that have moved beyond the startup stage – was a foundational driver for TechSydney and will be a top-line focus of its lobbying of government. It is not the only focus, but it is a fundamental focus.

Not that you would know it. The froth and bubble of its launch meant the fundamental property issues are known under the euphemism “creating a hub.” And TechSydney’s Genesis narrative (you have to have a narrative these days, preferably involving a garage, a kitchen table or a credit card) deliberately obscured the muscle behind the organisation.

Here is a disclaimer: I am a supporter of TechSydney, and its ambitions.

In particular, I am a supporter of an industry getting organised in order to find growing room in Sydney. I have written about this, specifically calling on the sector to get organised about property rights.

InnovationAus.com maintains an office in Ultimo, right in the heart of Australia’s most dense geography of co-located startups, techs, and digital creative companies. We share a building with some of Australia’s most interesting tech success stories.

We want this part of Sydney to thrive as a home to the sector as much as anyone.

So why is it so hard for advocacy groups borne out of Startupland to be more straight-forward? And why can’t they be more inclusive? And if the goal is so laudable – lest I be accused of pooing in the pool (again) – why is it so important to obscure the funders and the political juice behind the effort.

Does it have to be all green fields, blue skies and dancing unicorns every single time? What’s wrong with mapping out the battle ahead?

TechSydney has its origins – if not its original funding – in the University of Technology Sydney and Atlassian. Both organisations have been seeking growing room.

The UTS is pumping out entrepreneurs at a faster rate than any institution in Australia and wants to help build-out a landing pad ecosystem around its Ultimo campus. Atlassian’s search for a place to grow is well documented through its audaciously late (and ultimately unsuccessful) bid for the Australian Technology Park in Redfern.

The strong rumour is that UTS and Atlassian are the primary funders of TechSydney to date. TechSydney won’t say where its funding comes from, only that there are “multiple funders” and the structure of its on-going funding is still to be worked out.

I am probably making an assumption that Atlassian’s involvement in TechSydney is property-related, but only because the company’s global head of property Brent Harman is listed as a founder of the group. I’m probably wrong.

The UTS’s interest and involvement is pretty straight-forward. TechSydney’s new chief executive Dean McEvoy was recruited to the organisation via the UTS. And this is interesting.

The university had set up an not-for-profit called Piivot a couple of years ago, charged with engaging with the startup sector, and helping to build-out the entrepreneurial eco-system around the UTS. Which completely makes sense because more entrepreneurs begets even more entrepreneurs (and by extension, more students enrolled in ‘entrepreneur’ disciplines.)

UTS had engaged the global recruiters MitchellLake Group to conduct a worldwide search for a high-profile new CEO for Piivot. The global search landed on Dean McEvoy, who interviewed for the job, but didn’t take it.

Mr McEvoy instead has been consulting to the UTS via Piivot. The result of that consultation was that while Piivot was important for engagement in the immediately local area, Sydney needed a broader coalition of entrepreneurial forces to build-out the ecosystem.

Those discussions ultimately led to the creation of TechSydney, and Mr McEvoy’s new role of CEO.

Which brings us to the Powerhouse site. With the Baird Government sticking firm on moving the Powerhouse Museum to a new site in Parramatta, the industry is now pooling its efforts to ensure the existing Powerhouse is not simply handed over to developers to build apartments.

This is an important fight. The UTS has been talking up its message about entrepreneurs and startups and how these complex and brittle ecosystems thrive since the Premier announced plans for the museum’s relocation.

It has mapped a grand vision for the Ultimo-Pyrmont-Chippendale-Redfern corridor, and its potential as a home for startups and scale-ups and digital creatives.

We will find out more next week I suppose, at TechSydney’s invitation-only launch at the Powerhouse. You have to apply to be a member and describe on your application what your business does, how much funding you have received, and nominate who your funders are. And decribe your company’s traction in the market so far.

As an aside, it is hard to imagine Mike Cannon-Brookes or Scott Farquhar as youthful Atlassian founders – or Dean McEvoy for that matter – joining a group of tech elders and multinationals who made these kinds of upfront demands. Just saying.

This initiative is not just about the Powerhouse Museum, obviously. But the pending decisions about that site are reaching the 11th hour. It is incredibly positive for the sector that an organisation of likeminded and collectively powerful interests come together to with common purpose on this issue.

But don’t you wish just once that these Masters of the Universe could be straight-forward? That the curtain might be opened just a little, to let the light stream in?

Instead, we get the same tired, decades-old tech industry narrative: First, line up the fear (Australia risks falling behind, the government is hopeless, and we’ll all end up in the Poor House) and then apply the soothing balm (the future is all greenfields, blue sky and dancing unicorns, if only you idiots would just do what we tell you.)

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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