Innovation activity is crucial in addressing job losses in regional Australia, but more government support and education is required to capitalise on this, Incubate at 35 Degrees co-founder Dianna Somerville said.
With the deployment of the NBN and regional funding efforts from the government, it’s never been easier to run a tech company from regional Australia, Ms Somerville said.
“We have great opportunities in the regions with the roll out of the NBN and the accessibility of global markets. You don’t have to be sitting in an office in Sydney or Melbourne to do that, the opportunity is so strong,” Ms Somerville told InnovationAus.com.
“When we talk about trying to boost our region’s job security and of future job losses, I see part of the solution coming out of people building new and great businesses from the regions,” she said.
“A lot of people are making the tree change back to the regions now they have accessibility. You can run a business and have the lifestyle as well.”
Most of the rhetoric surrounding startups and innovation is centred on globally-focussed businesses, but Ms Somerville said this is leaving most of regional Australia behind.
“There’s such a focus on globally-scalable businesses, but I think we need to take a step back and build that ecosystem from the grassroots up and not try to jump in from that high level. We lose too much by doing that and leave too many people behind,” she said.
While most regional innovation ecosystems are “immature”, they are beginning to develop across Australia, she said.
“It is grassroots, but it is starting to spin. There’s a real need for collaboration in the regions to get it going. We’re see that uptake now,” Ms Somerville said.
“There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of it’s about helping people make the internet work for them, and see themselves being able to grow a business that services not just the regions, but beyond.”
Incubate at 35 Degrees is an eight-week incubator program aiming to help individuals in Wagga Wagga and other regional cities transform an idea into a business. It launched in September last year by Ms Somerville and 365Cups founder Simone Eyles, with its first eight participants finishing the program in November.
The incubator’s second cohort pitched to a room of investors and other influential figures on Monday night. These companies range from a SaaS service for governance in Indigenous corporations to a pet health app. All four of the participants in the second cohort are women.
“They began the program as a conceptional idea and now are all registered businesses. That’s putting four businesses back into the local community, which in a regional setting is quite a challenge. Within eight weeks you can find out if an idea is worth pursuing or not,” Ms Somerville said.
The program began with eight participants, but half of these eventually dropped out for various reasons.
“They’ve come to the realisation that they’re either not ready, aren’t willing to commit or the idea isn’t right. That’s what the whole idea of it is – giving the opportunity to try and fail and start again,” Ms Somerville said.
Incubate at 35 Degrees does not take any equity from the companies formed during its programs, instead charging a small fee for participants. The program is run with funding from sponsors and the founders themselves.
“We’ve had our opportunities given to us so we like to give back and this is our way of doing it,” Ms Somerville said.
Despite the program’s success in regional Australia, it has been unsuccessful in attracting funding from the federal government’s $23 million incubator support program. While this funding is important, Ms Somerville says education is what’s really missing in regional Australia.
“There’s definitely a lot of funding around but I see a large education gap in the community and in the understanding of the opportunities. There definitely needs to be more done to educate the regions and particularly the councils on what a positive ecosystem can do for the local economy,” she said.