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Ideas Worth Starting

By Justin Pen.
May 10, 2013.

It’s easy to see why entrepreneurs are the frontiersmen and women of the current age – they’re sharp, risk-taking individuals who probe the few existing boundaries in an essentially borderless world. They’re magnetic, driven and adaptable. They’re university graduates, scientists and activists.

The University of Sydney Union and The University of Sydney partnered with Google and INCUBATE to hold the nation’s largest TEDxSydney satellite event on Saturday 4 May. Themed ‘Ideas Worth Starting’, the event pivoted between a live-stream of the events from the Opera House and a collection of in-house speakers and panellists.

“Like TED, we believe passionately in the power of ideas. Ideas matter. Now, more than ever,” said Astha Rajvanshi, President of the University of Sydney Union.

And the University of Sydney is no stranger to ideas.

Within popular culture, Mark Zuckerberg stands as the exemplary entrepreneur, and Facebook, the quintessential startup. Notwithstanding the accuracy of this representation, it’s easy to see why voyages into social media are appealing.

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Mark Zuckerberg stands as the exemplary entrepreneur, and Facebook, the quintessential startup.

James Cooper-Stanbury, a Computer Science and Technology student and recent INCUBATE alum, thought as much. “It’s staggering how much we use these [social] networks,” he says with bug-eyed excitement. “Instagram was 551 days old had a 13 member team, and was snatched up in a $1b acquisition. At the time, it had made zero dollars in revenue.”

Muro, the brainchild of Cooper-Stanbury, and partners Sam Turner and Nicholas Cooke, is an elastic photo-sharing platform that allows users to instantly upload and share pictures on-the-go. Unlike services such as Facebook and Twitter, which “use manual connections [to] social network,” Muro connects you directly to an event; and every pair of eyes and every camera lens present.

James Cooper-Stanbury talks about his startup Muro, allowing everyone to share photos at events.

Adopting a more literal definition of ‘elastic’, Professor Tony Weiss, an expert in the field of Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology, glibly stated “We’re in the game of making body parts.”

“We’re not rigid robots, we’re basically elastic individuals. Every time we move or breathe in and out, the skin stretches,” he said. Elastin, the conveniently-named protein that allows our skin to expand and contract, Weiss explains, makes up the bricks and mortar of the human body. Break that down and we get Tropoelastin.

Weiss explained that while only “twenty billionths of a nanometre long, we start to make things from a nanoscale to a microscale to a milliscale to a massive scale.” From replacing segments of burnt skin to reconstructing the fixtures between bones, the practical applications of his research are manifold.

Culture Shift

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Panel members on stage discussing startups and entrepreneurship in Australia

The last five years have heralded in a seismic cultural shift towards entrepreneurialism, characterised by the rise of programs like INCUBATE, the USU’s startup acceleration program. “The tech start-up ecosystem in Australia is like a start-up itself,” said Sally-Ann Williams, the Engineering Community & Outreach Program Manage for Google. “There were no co-working spaces in Australia five years ago. Now there are seven.”

Dr Russell J Howard, CEO, entrepreneur and biochemist, packed his bags for the States at a young age. Having recently returned to Australia, Howard felt “a little chastened by the fact that tall poppy syndrome still exists. I can still tell that’s a problem here,” he said. “There’s never a negative perception of someone that wants to go 200 per cent in the US environment. It’s a sad truth.”

But America is losing its much-coveted exceptionality.  “There’s a buzz you get in the Valley, there’s a buzz you get in Boston,” Weiss acknowledged. “[But] you can feel the change in the air,” he counters. “It’s palpable. You can feel the wind on your back right now,” he said of the emerging startup ecosystem in Australia.

…America is losing its much-coveted exceptionality.  “There’s a buzz you get in the Valley, there’s a buzz you get in Boston,” Weiss acknowledged. “[But] you can feel the change in the air,” he counters. “ “It’s palpable. You can feel the wind on your back right now,” he said of the emerging startup ecosystem in Australia.

Whitney Komor, a recent Arts graduate and CEO of The Best Day stands out as a pioneer of the booming startup environment in Australia. “I went to the US first; I was under the impression that was how I had to do it. I did a tour in the US, and the general advice I was getting was ‘you need to pack up and move here right now.’” But it was at ‘Head Over Heels’, an Australian organisation that aims to empower entrepreneurial women, where Komor found the capital she was after. She secured $500,000 on the night and another $600,000 from Sydney Angels, a pool of varied investors, the following evening.

Key to the growth of the Australian startup ecosystem is the strengthening of the local entrepreneurial community. Weiss reflected that were it not for the “collection of remarkable people working around [him]” he would not have been able to launch Elastagen. His advice to those entering the startup community: “[you] shouldn’t see walls; [you] should see doors.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t separate the bars of Manning and Wentworth,” joked panel host, Craig Reucassel.

Time and Place

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TEDxSatelite-60 main quad

Entrepreneurs, above all else, are accident-prone. Komor describes her vocational pivot as “accidental.” Noticing a problem in event organisation, “I just looked for a solution,” she said. Reucassel similarly commented that, for him, his “business was an accident.”

When asked if entrepreneurs were born outside of the classroom, Reucassel replied, “the Chasers met through the student newspaper” and an assortment of other “extracurricular activities.”

“I guess you can say the USU ‘incubated’ The Chasers,” he grinned.

Peering over an ecological and economic cliff, Australian entrepreneurs, by their very nature, are well-positioned as agents of change. The startup ecosystem encourages experimentation and innovation. It’s a jungle of paradoxes: a fiercely competitive culture married to co-habitation and community support. It’s a place where graduates and students stand at the vanguard, shoulder to shoulder, with the old guard. It’s a disruptive force in a typically nepotistic and dysfunctional market of ideas. It’s a space one ought to watch – if not join.

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