Start-up, spin-out, pop-out
Universities have always been centres of thinking and learning but a growing entrepreneurial spirit and a generation more open to taking risks is helping turn the University of Canberra into a hotbed for business start-ups.
Access to new technologies, networks of skilled and enthusiastic people and a pool of expertise seldom found anywhere else have fuelled the rapid growth of new business ventures born on campus. University of Canberra Director of Innovation & Engagement, Dr Victor Pantano, said the majority are students with a big idea and the drive to make it happen.
"The University of Canberra has a focus on social entrepreneurialism, helping students, alumni and staff take those first steps into operating their own start-ups," Dr Pantano says.
"Gen Y make up the largest numbers of students we're currently seeing at the University and many seem to share a strong, positive mindset towards taking their ideas from a dream to a business."
That mindset, which is often called "the entrepreneurial spirit", blends creativity, commitment and dedication, an element of risk-taking and the ability to build a network of people with the required skills.
"Often people need a little spark to get going. In today's world there is no limit to the inspirational success stories on social media that make you think 'I can do that too'," he says.
According to Dr Pantano, entrepreneurialism isn't a straight forward journey. There are risks such as putting money, time, social lives and even pride on the line to make a go of a dream.
"These are the risks, but people who are going to succeed are the ones who weigh those risks up and know the payoff and seeing their idea take form will be worth the risk," he says.
The biggest hurdles identified by most people starting out are the need to find funding and to build a team around them.
"No entrepreneur is going to have all the skills to take their concept to commercialisation and to manage a business as well, but one of the biggest benefits of starting out at university is the number of people around you," Dr Pantano says.
With the University's campus development plans underway, students will be able to harness the innovation opportunities that will be generated by this growth. Already there are plans for a co-working space on campus where small start-ups could be based together, to learn from each other's experience and to access mentoring programs.
Providing a work environment which can be opened to micro-businesses when they are starting out can ease some of the financial strain which Dr Pantano identified as a major source of stress for budding businesspeople. The University has also welcomed external businesses to base themselves at the heart of the educational facility, providing opportunities to students to gain workplace skills.
Cloud control on campus
One of these businesses is Instaclustr, a global database management service, formed in 2013. Canberra lads Ben Bromhead and Adam Zegelin, who are Instaclustr's original founders, were looking for a management service for the open-source database Apache Cassandra and when they couldn't find one, they created it.
Instaclustr's Chief Product Officer Ben Slater said the company went through a boom phase in 2014 after securing funding worth more than $2 million.
"In the beginning the company had just one client, but by being able to cater for start-ups which are more open to giving another start-up a go, we've built the business," Mr Slater says.
Instaclustr has since gone global with 60 international clients, with another 60 in the early set-up stages.
Mr Slater describes the company as a truly next-generation business, operating in the public "cloud" and being based at the University of Canberra allows it to draw on emerging talent.
There's really no pool of experienced people in our field anywhere in the world, so being on campus means we've got skilled people graduating and ready to work right on our doorstep.
Among the University alumni quickly snapped up by Instaclustr is Megan Smith, who joined the company as its digital marketing coordinator.
"I was able to get some work-integrated learning experience with Instaclustr while I was studying and when I finished my degree I was already a part of the team," Ms Smith says.
New perspectives, new opportunities
Following in Instaclustr's steps, the Cross-Cultural Design Lab has established its business on campus, offering design services to everyone from start-ups to well-established businesses. Co-founders, University of Canberra Associate Professors Lisa Scharoun and Fenke Peng created the lab to encourage students to consider design for a range of perspectives and to tap into new creative pathways.
Together with Associate Professor Carlos Montana Hoyos and a group of researchers, they act as a design incubator, challenging students, alumni and
even designers from external businesses to take a fresh approach to their work. US-born Dr Scharoun says the founders draw on a range of backgrounds with Dr Peng coming from China and Dr Montana Hoyos from Colombia. "We're providing opportunities for designers to experience their concepts through cross-cultural lenses and Canberra's multiculturalism is the perfect place to do that," she says.
Dr Scharoun also pointed out that Canberra lacks a traditional manufacturing base which means the wider community is more open to new ways of doing things.
"The designs we're seeing are different; they are new and for the most part they are really out-of-the-box and surprising.
"All of this adds to the education we can provide to local designers, helping them understand and better target global markets with their business and concepts."
The Cross-Cultural Design Lab is putting plans into motion to establish a makers' marketplace giving design students, alumni and industry a platform to go from small-scale businesses to develop more global ventures.
On target and riding the wave
One designer who is already taking on the world is 21-year-old Jonathon Cleaver who is riding the wave of the global Pokémon Go phenomenon. A current honours student doing a Bachelor of Industrial Design, Jonathon developed a 3D-printed phone case designed specifically for fans of the monster-catching game, calling it the Pokéball Aimer Case.
"I was just playing Pokémon Go and it frustrated me that any little slip of my hand or shake would affect the game and I'd miss the catch," Jonathon says.
"I wasn't the only one either, my brothers would have the same problem, but I had the design skills to actually put something together to solve the problem." Jonathon developed a prototype that worked and sought feedback from the maker-community and Facebook.
"I actually received feedback via social media that it was a dumb idea. That was my first experience of negative responses from total strangers and it was disheartening.
"Within a couple of days it had gone viral and I had an influx of interest in the Pokéball Aimer Case. I had 80 orders within two days and had to temporarily close my online Etsy store to cope."
Jonathon approached Dr Montana Hoyos, who directed him to the University's Office of Strategic Engagement and Business Development for advice. "With a little guidance on making the most from this design, I've linked up with The Creative Element, which is a maker-space, and I'm also making my design available for people with 3D-printers via the MyMiniFactory website," he says.
Since creating the Pokéball Aimer Case Jonathon has discovered that it is also opening up the Pokémon Go game to new users who may have had trouble with it in the past.
"My design works really well for people with hand-tremors or even a disability; it acts as an aid and really boosts their ability to succeed at the game well."
Jonathon is incorporating the design and his experience developing and commercialising it into his honours project.
Taking an idea to new heights… and depths
Linking emerging businesses such as Jonathon's with existing industry is an important start to helping get an enterprise off the ground. One such promising connection has developed between the mining industry and a small group of network engineers, led by UC Associate Professor Kumudu Munasinghe.
This group took its initial research into establishing emergency Wi-Fi pathways to allow drones to fly into dangerous areas, such as a mine shaft following an accident, and stumbled on a solution to a very different problem.
"Our design involved small lightweight packages which ran on a rechargeable battery and activated a small Wi-Fi point which connected to the previous one and the next, like a trail of breadcrumbs," Dr Munasinghe says.
"The industry turned out to be far more interested in the wireless mesh network we created than it was in the drone concept, so we adapted."
The wireless mesh network created by the team allows miners to be in contact with the surface, using their own mobile phones through Voice-over-Internet-Protcol (VOIP) or even via an app.
"Part of taking those first steps into commercialisation is being flexible and responding to what your market needs, we took a small part of our system and made it the centre of a new project," Dr Munasinghe says.
Each unit weighs about 50 grams and provides a simple and affordable system for the mining industry, and potentially allowing other people temporarily working in areas just out of reach of a Wi-Fi signal to stay connected. Dr Victor Pantano laughingly refuses to accept that his job is like a midwife's, helping start-ups, spin-outs and pop-up businesses into the world, but acknowledges that the job fits.
"Universities are incubators," he says. "We are in the business of creating and nurturing ideas and setting people up to take on the world.
"We have a largely young, switched-on population and there are plenty of students and researchers at the University of Canberra who already have the entrepreneurial spirit.
"What we are doing is helping them see the potential, make the connections they need to take those ideas from concept to commercialisation, and personally, being able to do that feels great."
Words by Marcus Butler